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Quality tourism.

UNTIL RECENT years Oman, despite its many fascinating features, remained largely unknown to foreign visitors. People doing business with the Sultanate were usually granted permission to enter the country without any difficulty.

Tourism, however, was not encouraged. But for the past few years a new thinking has prevailed and now Oman is involved in a multi-million riyal, five-year tourism plan to encourage quality tourism. Fatima Hilali, an official with the Directorate of Tourism, explained to The Middle East that since 1986 there has been a new thinking concerning tourism to Oman, which came about as a result of a government decision to develop and promote the sector.

"The decision in 1986 to issue tourist visas represented the start of development in Oman's tourism sector. The government was particularly keen to welcome specific types of visitor. These can be broken into three basic groups: businessmen, Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) nationals and special interest groups, interested in the culture and history of Oman.

During the first season, which covered the winter months between October 1986 and April 1987, 1,500 tourists entered Oman. By the second season, this figure had reached 5,000 and during year three some 8,500 foreign visitors spent time in the Sultanate.

"Unfortunately, with the Gulf crisis this figure fell to almost zero during 1990-91 but we are beginning to see a recovery. Last year about 3,800 tourists entered the country." Fatima Hilali confirmed that the thinking behind Oman's decision to encourage tourism was part of the general policy of diversifying from a purely oil and gas based economy.

"Oil will remain Oman's main resource but the government is keen to develop other sectors. The country has touristic wealth including historical attractions, nice beaches and unspoiled marine life, a varied culture, handicrafts, traditional markets. There really are a fantastic number of interesting things for the visitor to experience."

Tourism currently accounts for less than one per cent of Oman's foreign earnings but these are early days. Clearly, Oman has much to offer the tourist in the way of scenery, climate, historical and cultural interest, and there is every reason to expect that as the word spreads the numbers of visitors will increase.

However, Oman is committed to following its established policy of encouraging only "quality" tourism, Fatima Hilali confirmed. There is no place in the Sultanate for impoverished back packers, unsettling the locals and sleeping on the beaches.

"We are determined to control the flow of tourist traffic because we are very much concerned about Oman's environment and its society. We want to ensure that there are no negative effects. We are taking things very gradually. We do not want high numbers of tourists entering the country at this stage. By the year 2000 we expect to be able to cater for 100,000 tourists, about 60% from European special interest groups and the remaining 40% from neighbouring GCC states but, as I have said, this increase will happen in gradual stages." A special five-year (1990-95) marketing programme for tourism with an annual budget of around OR150,000 is currently underway in Oman.

The country will be taking part in a number of international exhibitions and, in its efforts to regulate the flow of visitors and minimise any negative effects of their presence, will be following advice from a number of specially recruited international tourist authorities, including the World Tourism Organisation (WTO). So far the signs have been encouraging from both sides.

As Fatima Hilali pointed out: "Omanis are naturally friendly people, they enjoy meeting foreign visitors." And as for the tourists? "So far, the only complaint has been that the two-week tourist visa we issue is not long enough for them to see as much of the country as they would like to. In fact, they often complain that they would like to stay here longer and see more."
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Title Annotation:Special Report; Oman
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Previous Article:Keeping in touch.
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