Muscat: Omanisation, lack of interest among nationals to work in the industry, unprofessional taxi drivers and difficulties at immigration checkpoints are among the key challenges facing the growth of tourism in the Sultanate.
Oman's Ministry of Tourism has identified the most important challenges facing the tourism industry, which, if addressed, can be turned into opportunities that could speed up development of the tourism sector.
In a recent forum attended by ministry officials and representatives working in the tourism sector, a presentation was made about the challenges in several areas, including Omanisation, services and quality, promotion, immigration and transport.
According to information provided to the Times of Oman during the briefing, it was revealed that the Ministry of Tourism had launched an email campaign for a survey that included 400 questions collected from 150 tourism-related organisations.
The feedback was later consolidated and the questions were re-grouped to address the issues. The ministry shared the consolidated survey, which was also delivered to government agencies.
Oman's road map for tourism development and its tourism strategy were also discussed, and it was mentioned that the Ministry of Tourism had a long-term strategy, as part of a project assigned to THR, a worldwide tourism strategy consultant.
In addition, it was stated that the ministry had engaged major firms to assess the current situation and set new parameters for classifications and measurements.
Further, the ministry had also begun to work with major firms with significant experience in developing heritage sites. The ministry has additionally been making efforts to help develop public facilities and eco-tourism infrastructures.
The attendees were briefed about some of the main challenges in the tourism sector that are related to Omanisation.
Points that were mentioned included that the Omanisation percentage needs to be revised and that there is a lack of interest by Omanis in joining the hospitality sector.
Non-availability of skilled Omani staff for certain positions, turnover of local workforce, training local staff, recruitment difficulties, local labour language skills and lack of availability of professional tour guides were other issues that were touched upon.
According to the manpower statistics for the tourism sector collected through December 2013, 18,531 employees were working in the tourism sector – 7,324 Omanis and 11,207 expatriates, with the Omanisation rate reaching 39.5 per cent.
Further, statistics indicate that 71 per cent of the employees in the hotel sector are expatriates. The Omanisation employment target for 3, 4 and 5 star hotels is 85 per cent, while it is 55 per cent for 1 and 2 star hotels.
Additionally, 65 per cent of tour operators are expatriates, though the Omanisation target is 95 per cent. In other tourism businesses, Omanis account for 60 per cent of the employees, while the target is 90 per cent. In terms of services and quality, it was stated that one of the main challenges is that there has been no guidance from the quality control directorate to help organisations.
According to the ministry's presentation, multiple licensing complications for hotels pose another challenge. The lack of experience of the ministry's junior staff in dealing with tourism organisations and entertainment essential for tourism are other issues that need to be addressed.
As far as promotional efforts are concerned, it was stated that more promotions and marketing for destinations are required and the budget allocated for international tourism exhibitions should be increased.
Further, the need for promoting three and four star hotels equally with five-star hotels, and specialised designation marketing was also emphasised.
Among other issues discussed in the area of promotion were that more promotion and marketing is needed for domestic tourism and that an absence of activities during low season are affecting hotel occupancy rates.
The fact that the Ministry of Tourism charges high fees for the participation of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in trade shows is another stumbling block and there is a need for a new marketing strategy focused on Oman's culture and heritage.
In addition, it was highlighted that Oman remains a high-end expensive destination and there is a need to broaden the tourism base.
Another area in which the challenges were identified was immigration. During the briefing, it was stated that the immigration process at the airport is sometimes lengthy for tourists, and difficulties of obtaining visas for some nationalities have a direct impact on conference and event tourism.
Also, it was stressed that the rules of issuing tourist visas should be further clarified. The participants said that the visa fees on the UAE border also affects tourism traffic. It was also recommended that Royal Oman Police coast guards need training in dealing with leisure boats.
In terms of transport, the main challenges stated were that plane ticket prices for domestic destinations, such as Salalah and Khasab, do not encourage local tourism and that there are limited flights to and from Salalah.
As far as public transport is concerned, it was stated that taxi fares raise a challenge and create difficulties for tourists, and taxi drivers need training in providing improved quality of services to tourists.