Blessed with authentic Arab heritage, natural splendour, Oman ranks high on globetrotters' must-see lists. But poor or even lack of basic facilities (like toilets and help desks for tourists) critically affects the 'magical experience'.
Masoud Al Yazeedi, the freelance tour guide was all excited about the big group of tourists from Denmark he had to handle – around 120 people all eager to experience Oman, its beauty, heritage and nature. They were in three buses and on their way from Muscat to Ras Al Hadd to watch turtles.
It was past midnight and the tour leader approached Masoud and asked to stop the bus as some passengers wanted to answer the call of nature. He requested five minutes time, thinking hard which would be the best place to stop. But he couldn't think of any. "That was most embarrassing. We had to pull off the road as there was no option for the tourists to ease themselves except behind some bushes," Masoud recalls.
"This happens all the time and tourists often blame us, the tour guides," he points out. On the way to distant destinations, fuel stations are an option, but a majority of them have their toilets locked and even if one manages to get the key, he will land up in a most unhygienic situation. "We have been raising this issue with the authorities, asking them to set up restrooms on these long routes, or portable toilets, at least during the tourist season. There are companies willing to install them, but the authorities are yet to come forward to initiate the process," he adds.
"Muscat, of course, is very clean and we didn't have any trouble here, but we had different experiences during our trip to Jebel Shams, Nizwa, Rustaq and the Bimmah Sinkhole," said a middle-aged couple from Switzerland who were on a first time two-week visit to Oman. Maintenance of basic hygiene is most critical in tourism destinations, they add, preferring anonymity.
Very often tourists use toilets in petrol stations and supermarkets which are not maintained hygienically and 'they do not reflect an otherwise very clean Oman', says Robby George, Manager-Tours and MICE with Eihab Travels. "The demographics of the tourists coming to Oman reveal that a majority of them are elderly couples and lack of toilet facilities critically affect the overall experience for them," he adds.
Lack of restrooms or basic hygiene, in fact, is just the tip of the iceberg, which could sink Oman's ambitious vessel showcasing an authentic Arab heritage, architecture, cuisine and hospitality for the globetrotting community. We are talking about all the basic services including information centres, availability of local area maps, smaller accommodation facilities and local restaurants that meet food safety standards, which are essential for the country to evolve itself into a true global tourism destination. And they are very crucial when there's a tremendous effort to position Oman as an exotic and appealing holiday destination, feel many in the industry.
What tourists want?
Around 200 cruise ships bring close to 300,000 passengers at various ports in the Sultanate including Muscat, Salalah and Khasab every season, letting them have a glimpse of the country which would tempt them to come for a second visit, for a longer stay. "Cruise industry provides the biggest marketing opportunity to showcase Omani tourism products. The tourists come on cruise vessels in the morning and go back in the evening whereby they get only a glimpse of Oman. That's the time when we should provide them with brochures and other advertising materials to attract them back to Oman for a longer stay," says M. C Jose, the CEO, Projects and Logistics Group, Khimji Ramdas, which handles more than half of the cruise ships that call on Oman.
What tourists want?
-- Glimpses of Arab culture, architecture, hospitality
-- Safety and security – protection against fraudulent elements
-- Access to information (help desks/tourist information centres)
-- Basic facilities – clean toilets on highways/near monuments
-- Local restaurants/Omani eateries serving hygienic food
-- Community participation – local accommodation/guest houses
Oman is now certified as the best for sea cruise, because the immigration department has implemented a user-friendly procedure for clearing the passengers on arrival without any delay. "Passengers need not wait for their passports getting stamped to go outside. All the passports are surrendered to immigration department officials who come on the ship on the ship's arrival and the passengers are given a landing card to make a short trip outside. When they come back they get back their stamped passports. This is the simplest and most efficient procedure you can find in the region," he points out.
The tourists, he says, want to enjoy sunshine during winter, which Oman has in abundance. "They don't want to go to cities which are concrete jungles as they have seen them elsewhere. When they arrive in Oman, they experience the authentic Arab culture, cuisine, architecture and hospitality and Oman has the great potential to provide this authentic Arab experience. Many arrive with little knowledge about Oman and they return with happy faces because of their wonderful short stay experience," he asserts.
Along with this, the destination has to ensure various other ingredients that make it a safe, comfortable and user-friendly place, Jose says. "The service providers should ensure that tourists are not let down in any manner. We have to give maximum information when they come and there should be help desks or tourist information centres in every region. Basic hygiene has to be maintained and there should be clean toilets on highways, near monuments and near forts. They want to taste Omani cuisine and we have to guarantee that it's healthy and hygienic standards are strictly maintained," he adds.
Lost in the wilderness?
Absence of good local restaurants, especially what can be called an 'authentic Omani' restaurant at tourist spots is of course another issue, agrees Robby. But a more serious one is the lack of adequate local information, signage and local area maps which are useful from the tourists' point of view, he says. "At the moment, this is quite challenging, especially for the 'self drive' clients. For someone driving up Jebel Akhdhar mountain, there's no information available locally in the form of maps or literature. So it's almost impossible to plan the trip and also causes delays," he adds.
As a tour operator, he has seen attractive brochures of Jebel Akhdhar displayed at travel exhibitions abroad. "But making these available to tourists is the key. There should also be tourism information centres at major tourist spots, providing free and comprehensive information about the area," he points out.
Besides, nothing much has been done in the direction of 'sustainability, community initiatives and SMEs', which could boost tourism in the country, Robby says. "We should have more community projects like the "Zaree" in Khasab. Implementing such a policy will automatically solve some of the current basic issues such as local restaurants, guest houses and other smaller community-run facilities. This will also help provide employment to Omani youth. Opening up smaller, locally owned accommodation facilities will attract more travellers who cannot afford five-star accommodation but who would eventually spend more on local produce and economy," he says adding that some tour operators are keenly involved in community initiatives in their own small ways.
For the tourism industry, the need of the hour is good coordination between different government agencies to find solutions to these basic issues. "Also communication between trade partners and industry stakeholders should be improved. At the moment, the tour operators do not get even regular, timely updates from museums, forts and other sites," Robby points out.
But Oman, for many who have visited, is definitely a return destination, an amazing country which one cannot see during a short stay. "Muscat, maybe, and perhaps a day out in the countryside. Is that enough? No," says Ben Alcock, the travel blogger from Brisbane. He was in Dubai recently and met Europeans for whom this was their 6th or 7th visit. "I can only imagine that Oman would enjoy similar repeat visitation from those markets. Perhaps not quite to the same extent, but there's no reason why it wouldn't be high on the must-go-back lists," he adds.
|More tourists, less facilities|
|M. C Jose|
CEO, Projects and Logistics Group
Oman is now certified as the best for sea cruise, thanks to the immigration department here which clears passengers on arrival without any delay and this season we are expected to handle around 260,000 passengers. This is our great opportunity to inspire these passing tourists with our brochures and a tempting glimpse of Oman.
Manager-Tours and MICE
The synergy created by public-private partnership and community interface is quite essential to minimise the leakages and maximise the linkages of the industry so that Oman could evolve as a successful destination. Oman has to present its best to travellers around the world while preserving its tradition, cultural values and the natural beauty.
|Masoud Al Yazeedi|
Freelance tour guide
As per the feedback I get, many tourists who have been to Oman are a bit reluctant to come for a second visit as they are not happy with the basic facilities here. If we want to attract more tourists, we have to improve these facilities, like providing clean toilets at various destinations. Lack of these facilities causes a lot of embarrassment for us.
Photographer and journalist from Sydney, Australia
I found Oman to be magical in all aspects and little things, like lack of enough restrooms, are too small a deterrent. However, it is something to be considered. Asian countries like Malaysia have rest houses all along their highways. The lack of Dubai style shopping is a plus for Oman as travellers like me prefer souqs.
Travel blogger From Brisbane, Australia
Oman is already competing for a sub-set of the overall Australian stopover market. With time limited for most leisure travellers, it will be an even smaller prospective group that considers a side-trip from Dubai/Abu Dhabi to Oman. This could be a much bigger impediment than basic infrastructure.