Balanced development is key to Oman's marine tourism

The seas of Oman have been close to our hearts for centuries. Long before we discovered hydrocarbon wealth off our coastline, fishing was our ancestors' traditional means of livelihood. And as our nation steps up the drive to diversify its economy, our seas will continue to play a pivotal role in aiding Oman's future development. 

Given the not-so-distant future scenario when the hydrocarbon industry may lose its luster, Oman is laying a strong foundation for other industries that have the potential to take over as drivers of the economy.

Fishing, besides agriculture, is one such industry. Already, our fisheries — which employ more than 40,000 Omanis — catch more fish than any other country in the region, and are a prime contributor to Oman's export earnings, next only to oil.

The Government of Oman is resolutely plowing more investment into the sector with plans to bring the total number of fishing ports and harbors to 31 by 2020.

An eight sq km integrated fisheries hub within the Special Economic Zone at Duqm is also being planned at a cost of US$250 million. Such upgrade of infrastructure will enable the government to meet its objective to boost fish production to around one million tons within the next decade, besides facilitating the creation of 20,000 additional jobs by 2020.

Another industry that will bloom to become a major revenue earner for Oman is marine tourism. The government is actively showcasing to the world the beauty and adventures that may be found on and off the country's 1,700 km stretch of coastline.

To start with, our coastline offers multiple opportunities for the country to develop small and medium sized beach resorts that can help draw tourists from around the world.

This ties in nicely with the government's objective to make tourism a key contributor to economy and employment through attracting 12 million visitors annually by 2020 - a significant increase over the estimated 2.5 million

visitors in 2010. The shallow sea basins off Oman offer a friendly environment for marine tourists and lend themselves admirably to the development of a vibrant hospitality sector. Here, nature lovers can enjoy a tapestry of natural sights and wonders such as small islands, marine cliffs, bays and caves, coral formations, mangroves, dolphins, as well as the nesting grounds of birds and turtles.

While this may be interesting and exciting enough there is however a caveat. If Oman's tourism industry — which is so intricately and delicately linked with its seas — is to thrive over the long run, it needs to aggressively embrace sustainability at all levels, beginning now.

As with any other country that depends heavily on nature tourism, Oman needs to continuously implement a series of safeguards — which should be deliverable by all stakeholders in Oman. This includes me and you.

The government, for its part, has underlined that 'balanced development' is the watchword to preserve harmony between the fragile marine environment and industry. For example, our law makers remain judicious when it comes to issuing new licenses for fishing vessels, and intend to ensure Oman's azure waters are free of big industrial trawlers — helping the country safeguard against over-fishing. The government also educates fishermen to employ environmentally-friendly practices, such as employing fishing gear with long lines.  

Businesses, industries and households are the other stakeholders that need to join in the nation-wide efforts to protect our seas and their ability to generate wealth and opportunity for us. A bulk of Oman's population lives by the coast, which inextricably connects us to life that exists on and off our shoreline.

Add to this the projected 12 million tourists that will arrive on our coasts year-on-year, and one begins to see the cumulative impact of human intervention on the fragile ecosystem.

The good news is that small, practical changes can do much to preserve the marine habitat. For example, hotels by the beach can pledge to follow green, eco-friendly practices. So can other industries, businesses and households.

And since the chemical-laden effluents from our bathrooms that drain into the seas is a major source of offense to marine life, we can make sure that products we pick off our  supermarket shelves — our shampoos, hand soaps and cleaning agents — are 'greywater safe'. Such vigilance will also allow the municipality to breathe easy about treating wastewater before it is discharged into the sea.  At a strategic level, Oman can step-up cooperation and terms of engagement with neighbouring countries to protect the Arabian Gulf — a busy passageway that ferries 30 per cent of the world's oil. All nations in the region have a vital interest in protecting the waters from accidents that may result in oil spills — something that would wreak havoc on the fragile marine ecosystem of the Gulf.

The author is the Chairman of National Bank of Oman and an International Advisor to the Brookings Institution.  All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.


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