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Oman braces for summer tourist influx

Oman has adorned its southern province of Dhofar with lights and flags, put up giant sign boards and prepared its hotels in anticipation for a massive influx of visitors from neighbouring Gulf countries seeking to escape the scorching summer heat at home, according to local press.

Officials have also taken measures to determine the exact number of tourists, their destinations, favourite places and how much they spend during their stay in the province, mainly in the southern port of Salalah.

“This will help us know more about Oman’s tourism sector and this will consequently allow us to plan better and develop this important sector of our economy,” said Abdul Malik Al Hanai, an adviser at the Omani finance ministry.

“These measures will continue until September 21 and will include monitoring the exact number of tourists coming this season whether by land, airport or by sea…we will also interview many visitors so they will give us their comments and opinions about the tourism sector in Oman and how to further develop it.”

The tourism season for 2011 is being launched on Tuesday and will last until September 21, the hottest period in the desert Gulf where temperatures soar close to 50 degrees. Many Gulf citizens also escape to other countries.

Most of the tourists to Oman head for the southern provincial capital of Salalah, the scene of an annual traditional festival that has been staged by Oman for many years to utilize the area’s relatively mild weather and develop the tourisms sector as part of an ongoing programme to diversify the oil-reliant economy.

Last year’s “Salalah Festival” featured many additional events, including a cultural village showing Oman’s past and present, traditional food and fashion shows, contests and folklore nights.

Salalah, overlooking the Indian Ocean, attracted a record high number of vacationers from nearby UAE and other Gulf countries during the tourism season in 2009 but the number fell in 2010 because of the fasting month of Ramada.

Over the past two decades, Salalah has remained a key tourism destination for Gulf families escaping the sizzling desert heat as Oman’s second largest city enjoys tropical climate despite its proximity to the Arabian desert.

Salalah, the capital and seat of the governor or Wali of the southern Omani province of Dhofar, is subjected to the south-west monsoons.

The period of late June to early September is known as the khareef (autumn) season, during which visitors from across the Gulf flock to the city to enjoy the monsoon and avoid the harsh heat faced by the rest of the region.

During this period, the town's population more than doubles and various exhibitions and other events are organized, such as the Khareef Festival.

Salalah, nearly 1,050 kilometres south of the Omani capital Muscat, is known as the “perfume capital of Arabia and for its giant coconut trees.  Besides its relatively good weather and location, the city is a strong tourism destination due to the natural attractions of the nearby mountains and abundant stands of frankincense trees lining mountain wadi courses.

Around the city and into the mountains the countryside is lush and green during the monsoon period with the vegetation supporting herds of cattle.

The climate supports wildlife often more commonly associated with East Africa, such as leopards and hyenas.The beaches and coastline are also major attractions for scuba diving and bird watching.

Official figures showed around 262,000 tourists from the Gulf, including Oman itself, visited Salalah during last year’s Khareef season, down from a record 293,000 visitors in 2009. Total spending by those tourists stood at a record high of around RO66 million (Dh633 million) in the 2009 season while it declined to nearly RO23 million (Dh227 million) in 2010.

According to a survey by the Ministry of Tourism, most of the Gulf visitors prefer to spend their holiday in rented accommodation rather than hotels. The survey showed that 77 per cent of the visitors last year spent a record 2.1 million nights in rented houses and apartments in the city, with a population of over 200,000.

“The decline in the number of visitors in last year’s season was because it coincided with Ramadan,” Hanai said.

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