Oman has never enjoyed the oil riches of its Gulf neighbours but the recent drop in price will not help its weak economy. The country identified tourism as a way of balancing the economy and decided – very wisely – not to copy the garish style of Dubai but to play to the country’s scenic and cultural strengths. Costs in Oman are rather higher than in the UAE so, perhaps inevitably, the country’s tourism business has always had to aim at the upper-end of the market. The master-plan to increase tourism involves the opening of a much-needed new airport and several new hotels in the next couple of years including new hotels from Shangri-la, Ritz-Carlton and the Jumeirah group. Inevitably, such an influx of new, expensive hotels will pose a major challenge for existing hotels such as The Chedi. The growth will need careful support and management from the government if it is to succeed.
Sadly, that support might be sadly lacking. The country’s parliament has just voted for a ban on the sale of alcohol in the country.
I was amazed to read that, according to some “experts”, an alcohol ban might not have much impact on Oman. Apparently, this is because of the country’s deliberate marketing as a cultural destination and the fact that visitors from certain countries prefer to stay in dry hotels. That rather sounds like “experts” telling local big-wigs what they want to hear.
Even though Oman carefully markets itself as a rather superior destination, a ban is bound to put off some potential visitors. Some people who come to enjoy the high standard of local cuisine might well like a glass of wine with dinner or a cold beer after a swim. There are plenty of other luxury destinations that will welcome them. If only a small percentage of people stay away at a time they are opening so many new hotels, the impact will be felt badly.
It will also seriously damage the income of hotels. Even if they manage to get away with charging the current room rates with the lower demand brought about by an alcohol ban, hotels will lose all the income that alcohol brings in. That would mean having to increase room rates. The Chedi is regarded as one of the Middle East’s leading luxury resort hotels, but its current rates are at the top end of what the market will accept for rather small, basic rooms so any increase would be seriously bad news.
The country’s airline has been struggling with losses for years. A ban on alcohol will make the airline a second-choice for many. “Dry” airlines all have to discount heavily to fill their aircraft – and Oman Air simply cannot afford that.
I can fully understand why Oman does not want to fall into the Dubai trap of becoming “party central” for the Middle East. It is unpleasant to watch drunk European tourists falling down on the beach after an “all-you-can-drink Champagne buffet lunch” in Dubai has reached its logical conclusion. Nor is it nice to watch Arabs drinking whisky to excess and then jumping into their customised Range Rovers for a Friday night burn-out or entertaining barely dressed Russian blonds chosen from the hotel bar. Oman has so far largely avoided this type of business anyway and, if they feel it is a problem, there are ways of controlling it without an outright ban.
Oman has huge potential for tourism and the careful way the government was going about this could have paid serious dividends. Sadly, it looks as if one ill-considered new law could wreck their work overnight.