ONE parched afternoon in February, the good and the great of the Middle Eastern tourism community gathered on a clifftop overlooking the Gulf of Oman to witness the opening of a resort which could signal a turning point for the country’s tourism.
Behind them towered the Barr Al Jissah mountains and below waves crashed on a beach once only visited by turtles.
Today the bay has been transformed into the largest tourist resort in Oman and the first three-hotel project for Hong Kong-based Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts.
The opening of Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa has increased Oman’s five-star bed stock by 60%, and with the country’s limited oil reserves expected to run out by 2025, it is hoped tourism will not only boost the economy but supply jobs for the population.
Oman opened to tourism in the 1980s, but by 2003 visitor spend accounted for just 0.7% of its GDP. It aims to double this by 2010 and in the last two years has expanded its UK operator base from 22 to more than 120.
Must do in Muscat
- An early morning dolphin-watching cruise on a dhow
- Walking around the Grand Mosque – an amazing building developed with the Sultan’s personal input (closed Thursdays and Fridays)
- Taking in Omani history at Bait Al Zubair Museum
- An evening drive along the corniche to see the forts, Sultan’s palace and fortified city by night
- Shopping at Muttrah Souk for frankincense, gold and, if not myrrh, then definitely pashminas
- A day trip to the Nizwa and Jabrine forts
- Spend some money at Nizwa silver souk or for the sheer spectacle, visit the Friday goat market
- A late-afternoon trip to stay at Wahiba Sands
The country has a joint visa agreement with Dubai and clearly hopes to get a piece of the emirate’s 5.5 million annual visitors – either by twin-centring or by complete defection.
Visitor numbers suggest this may be working as there were 60,000 British hotel guests in 2004 and the Oman Tourist Office UK and Ireland predicts numbers will hit 120,000 this year.
Major hotel chains are already represented – Chedi, Hyatt, InterContinental, Sheraton, Crown Plaza, Radisson and Ramada all have properties in or around Muscat.
However, Barr Al Jissah’s sales and marketing director Russell Loughland explained tourism will develop without drawing on the mass market and at no expense to cultural identity.
“Oman is a conservative country and the authorities are only interested in developing tourism in a way that sits comfortably with these principles,” he said. “The development here will be very different to that in Dubai.”
Despite strong competition for the luxury market, the new Barr Al Jissah operated at 70% capacity in its first two months and, said Loughland, 56% of these customers were from the UK.
“Visitors come here who already know Oman and want to experience its newest resort,” he said. “But many guests have stayed in other Shangri-La hotels and trust our brand enough to follow us to Oman.”
Oman certainly makes a great winter sun destination. The four-hour time difference is a breeze for Brits and Muscat’s cloudless 30ºC dry heat is certainly attractive to UK travellers.
Gulf Air doubled its daily service from Heathrow to Muscat in March, citing increased demand following the opening of the Barr Al Jissah. “We have seen a strong increase in traffic on this route,” said UK general manager Clive Wratten. “Oman is booming.”
And with a Shangri-La trademark CHI spa due to open in September, Barr Al Jissah general manager Desmond Hatton believes his resort is placing Oman on the tourism map.
“We’re selling the country, not just the resort,” he said. “We’re creating a destination.”
Gold Medal offers five nights’ bed and breakfast accommodation at the five-star Al Waha at Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa from £745 per person including return flights in October.
Travel 2 offers seven nights’ bed and breakfast accommodation in a Superior sea-facing room at the five-star Al Waha at Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa from £952 per person including flights and transfers in October.
Premier Holidays offers seven nights’ bed and breakfast accommodation at the five-star Al Waha at Shangri-La’s Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa for £913 per person including flights and transfers.
Where is it? On the Al Jissah bay on the Gulf of Oman, a 20-minute drive from Muscat and 40 minutes from the airport.
What’s it like? The hotel is the centre of the resort, which also houses the family-oriented Al Waha and the luxurious Al Husn. Turreted buildings in muted browns and reds mimic Omani village architecture, while the interiors are Middle Eastern grandeur meets Asian chic.
Sleep tight? The room was smart, comfortable and silent by night, despite the hotel operating at maximum capacity. It is geared to the business market and that was reflected in the décor – cool tones, a marble bathroom and lots of space. The balcony had a sea view and the business centre was nearby.
Anything else? The swimming pool is landscaped with a fake beach area and surrounded by chic rattan furniture, including double-sunloungers and pods into which a whole family can nestle.
Eat in or out? In. Muscat isn’t far, but the 20 in-resort restaurants and bars are worth sticking around for.
Smiley service? Sadly, the occasional surly waiter let down the overall standard, which was excellent.
Recommend it? Yes, for a medium-haul luxury winter sun break without jetlag.