Compared to its bustling neighbour Dubai, Oman’s quiet, natural and fairly tourist-free — for now.
“I’ve seen a growing request for travels to Oman,” says Simon Cameron, founder and managing director of luxury travel agent Lightfoot Travel.
“So many of our family clients have done the Sri Lankan villas, Phuket resorts and European ski chalets. They’re looking for new experiences. Oman just has so much to offer: culture in the city with beautiful mosques and bustling markets; stunning beaches with dolphin watching and turtle hatching; wadis surrounded by palm trees; exploring sand dunes on the back of a camel; and trekking in the Jabal mountains,” he adds.
“Oman’s not your typical holiday. It feels a bit more off-the-beaten-track in terms of mass tourism.”
The Ministry of Tourism is focused on growth and development, starting with a sizeable $35 billion investment over the next 25 years.
“We hope to increase the number of hotel rooms by 40%,” adds Salim Al Mamari, director general of tourism promotion for Oman’s Ministry of Tourism. “We’re also converting a number of self-contained apartments and farm houses to accommodate tourists.”
The goal, says Mamari, is to draw in five million visitors every year.
Change isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Mamari hopes all this development will employ 500,000 people in the next 25 years, with 70 percent of the jobs being filled by Omani nationals.
But it does mean that eco travel in Oman is more important than ever before.
How? Start with the hotel.
Roughly a two-hour drive outside of Dubai, Six Senses Zighy Bay (SSZB) beachfront Bedouin-inspired village-style villas dotted with bikes and hammocks, all with an eco-focus.
“We have diving activities where people clean up the ocean bed,” says Nurhayati Mohamad, the resort’s marketing and communications manager. This involves diving hosts being trained to collect ghost nets left by fishermen, freeing creatures trapped in them. Beach cleanups are organised on a monthly basis, while villagers and guests are invited on occasion to plant trees in the nearby Dibba town.
“Our organic garden is just beyond these walls. Even the date smoothies we serve are from our grounds.”
SSZB is also involved in community efforts, with activities like providing sponsorship for the women’s association and medical aid for the villagers.
Alila Jabal Akhdar
Where SSZB is all beach and detox, the Alila Jabal Akhdar sings a different tune. It’s 2,000 metres above sea level overlooking the Al Hajar mountain range. Reaching it requires a 4WD (the hotel can arrange transport) over a perilous bit of mountain.
“Oman has a lot to offer,” says Julian Ayers, general manager of the Alila Jabal Akhdar. “Desert, beaches, cities… but it also has the mountains. The hotel is really isolated, here in the middle of this local area. You can trek, meet the locals, but still be pampered.”
The Alila also has a strong eco-focus, including embracing EarthCheck operating standards, a process that integrates natural, physical and cultural elements of a given environment. The fort-inspired design was created in line with LEED design principles, and the hotel was the first in the country to receive such certification. Other green initiatives include water treatment facilities and solar paneling (used to heat around 70 percent of the hotel’s water supply).
All of this comes with stunning mountain views, via ferrata cliff-climbing activities, a relaxing infinity pool, subtle juniper decorations and an endless feeling of refined luxury.
Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar resort
“Oman sees a future in tourism but they want to do it in the right ways,” says Ekta Gandhi, public relations and communications manager for the newly opened Anantara Al Jabal Al Akhdar. A long-time resident of the sultanate, Gandhi has tracked its progress through development.
“You won’t see skyscrapers anytime soon.”
Only a 20-minute drive from the Alila and on the same stretch of the Al Hajar mountains, this just-opened Anantara property sprawls across manicured grounds. At the centre, there’s a fort attached to one of the restaurants. An extensive kids club and spacious villas with private plunge pools makes it family friendly.
While the large Anantara certainly has a resort feel, Gandhi stresses that there’s an eco-focus. “When they constructed the building and broke rocks, they repurposed the stone to the outside of the villas. The plants are native to the region. We try to work with local Oman suppliers, like having the woodwork and weaving done in a nearby town.”
There’s a woman in the neighbouring village who works with widows and the divorced. “She stitches scarves for us,” with the proceeds going back to the community. Each villa’s spa-like bathroom (featuring a rain shower and separate bath) is carved out of sustainable material from the local area.
Anantara in general has a strong focus on eco-efforts across its portfolio of properties. One of these programmes, ‘Dollars for Deeds’, involves matching dollar-for-dollar any guest donation. This goes towards things like children’s surgeries, wildlife protection, mangrove planting and animal conservation. As the group has just opened another property in Oman — this one in tropical Salalah — Anantara’s overarching sustainability policy is key.
“It’s all about supporting small businesses, that’s a good thing we do,” adds Gandhi. “Here at the resort, we even employ a village elder.”
Hotels are one thing. But what about transport?
In late 2016, British Airways (BA) launched direct flights from the UK to Oman, making the journey just over seven hours. For travellers coming from Dubai, most hotels provide car transport, while FlyDubai’s business class option offers comfortable travel to Muscat.
Yet even here, there’s a growing focus on being eco. British Airways, who have witnessed strong growth in its London to Oman route, stresses its ‘responsible flying’ policy.
“In 1992 we became the first airline to produce an environmental report and in 2002 we were the first airline to take part in carbon trading,” says Anjulika Dutton, commercial manager of the UAE, Oman, Egypt and Central Asia for BA.
“We’re determined to do everything we can to support the global goal of keeping temperatures below the forecasted 2°C rise,” Dutton adds.
To this end, the airline supports carbon-saving initiatives, environmental projects (assisted by customer donations) and government regulation. BA’s also focused on a global emissions cap from 2020 with the aim of reducing net carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent in 2050.
Newer models of BA planes are moving the company in this direction. The new Airbus A380 has 16 percent less emissions than the Boeing model it’s replaced. Even waste management is something the company thinks about: “Staff have worked to reduce the total amount of waste generated from a high in 2006 of 4,500 tonnes to 1,500 tonnes in 2015,” says Dutton.
Increased demand for travel to Oman has resulted in various airport expansions. At the end of 2015, Oman’s second-largest airport was inaugurated in Salalah. The aim was to expand tourism into the Dhofar region. And in late 2016, Oman Air’s Chief Executive Officer, Paul Gregorowitsch, was quoted discussing Muscat International Airport’s second runway.
He hoped that at some stage during 2017, the southern runway will be completely renovated and fitted for the future, he said.
“We do have problems due to the absence of the second runway. It’s heavily congested,” he said. “The new terminal will attract new flights from Oman Air, as we are growing from 42 aircraft today to 70 by 2020.”
Oman Air is launching a new daily flight from Manchester to Muscat starting May 1, 2017. The daily service to Oman Air’s hub in Muscat will be operated by an Airbus A330 and the flight time will be 7.5 hours.
The new Manchester services is in addition to the double daily flight from London Heathrow, making Manchester the only airport outside of London to have direct flights to Muscat. The daily flight will depart Manchester at 20.45 and arrive in Muscat at 07.20 in the morning. Oman Air will be opening its Manchester office soon and adding to its UK sales team, with new sales roles to be based in the city
The key takeaway here is simple: Oman’s developing. To date, tourism appears to be focused on a ‘low number, high quality’ strategy, making the destination perfect for eco-focused luxury travellers. Yet in an environment of change, where more tourists than ever are being lured to Oman’s beaches and mountains, it’s important that eco-efforts stay at the forefront — perhaps now more than ever before.