Oman targets conference and events sector to attract business travellers

Oman targets the lucrative conferences and exhibitions centre with launch of a $1 billion exhibition centre plans for a new ocnvention department.

Oman aims for the tourism sector to become an increasingly important part of its economy. Stephen Lock / The National
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MUSCAT // Oman has long positioned itself as a laid-back destination that boasts an array of cultural, physical and historical attractions, including forts and mountainous landscapes.

Now the sultanate is adding a new plank to its tourism strategy as it plans to target the conference, trade show and events sector, worth an estimated US$300 billion (Dh1.1 trillion) a year globally.

Oman is in the process of setting up a government department as part of the tourism ministry, to focus on bringing in major exhibitions. At the beginning of this year work started on a $1bn conference and exhibition centre in Muscat.

It is hoped this vast facility, to include hotels, a shopping mall, a business park and an auditorium, will attract more business travellers as Oman aims for the travel and tourism sector to become an increasingly important part of its economy.

Work on the convention centre has started at a time when the future of some other major developments in Oman, including the $20bn Blue City project, remain uncertain.

There is already stiff competition in the region, as well as globally, for this lucrative industry.

Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha have all been working hard to attract more conferences. But Oman is already starting to position itself to lure events, even though the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre is not expected to open until 2014.

"There is a project now we're starting in Oman ministry of tourism of creating an Oman convention bureau," says Gamal Sadek, a director at the ministry.

"The main role of this will be to market the destination as a convention hub within the region and they will be working on big exhibitions and conventions by being part of the international bid forums. I believe by the end of the year we will get the approval for this new department."

For hoteliers, the convention centre will be another attraction for the high-spending visitors the country is targeting.

"We're going after quality I would say, not quantity," says Olga Kubrak, the sales and public relations manager at The Chedi, a luxurious Muscat hotel that charges 200 Omani rials (Dh1,910) for its standard rooms during the high season, while its suites go for 450 rials at peak times.

"Just like everywhere else in Oman, you want the quality traveller. You don't want a big mass," she adds. "Oman is not for everyone and you have to find the right target clients who are interested in learning about the culture. It's definitely not your shopping destination."

Tourism is expected to account for $1.93bn, or about 3 per cent of Oman's GDP, this year, according to the tourism ministry.

The country is also focusing on the development of other infrastructure, including airports to help to grow the industry.

Abu Dhabi, meanwhile, is focusing heavily on the conventions industry both at home and abroad. The Abu Dhabi National Exhibitions Company is developing an Dh8bn "micro-city" called Capital Centre around the exhibition centre in the capital.

The company bought ExCeL London for Dh2.3bn in 2008 and last year launched a £165 million (Dh967m) extension of the UK convention centre. The company is also developing the Dh3.5bn Al Ain Convention Centre.