Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Food for Thought...

What's the shortest way to your satisfaction when you travel? Odds are that great food might just do it!  It is also likely the shortest way to tourists' wallets! You might find it hard to refuse the prospect of a great culinary experience, even if it comes with bolder price tag. Some say food gives it's best when savored in its indigenous environment, because it's not all about the chemical reaction in ones mouth, it's about the scents, the ambiance, the sounds, the feel, the colors, the mood, the weather... everything.

This rule should be put at work in Oman as well. There is a great effort going in the development of a unique tourism offering with massive man made attractions and infrastructure, but we might loose sight of a very important feature: showcasing the local food.  Capitalizing on the local cuisine and gastronomic potential could also be a major differentiating factor when it comes to competing with other regional destinations, as most of the others are also not doing too well on this front.

In Muscat most of the tourist proof offering is either in the expensive and universal kitchen sort of range (steak based or fusion type) or is good value for money but not really local (Turkish, Indian, Pakistani etc.).

Perhaps the best place to showcase the Omani food is in Mutrah Docklands/Port  and Cornish area. A "Food District" could include a whole range of locally inspired restaurants and it could define a whole new future for the area in the spirit of so many Dockland re-genreation projects around the world (like London, or Melburne  for the larger ones, or Cape Town for size and a tourism character comparable to Muscat). A comprehensive mixed use scheme should be elaborated with several retail outlets, restaurants, cafes, residential developments overlooking the marina (de-industrialized), and why not some offices space as well do diversify. But unlike many other examples where docklands re-generations were all about the residents this one in my view will have to be equally focused at residents and tourist. Creating what is know as the Waterfront Buzz through such a "Food District". The city obviously develops and extends northwards (Ansab, Seeb etc) therefore this historic center piece has to be treated almost like a heritage site, where some essential features of the Omani culture is well presented through food, proximity to the sea and tastefully designed traditional trading outlets (obviously the Souk would be a key feature, perhaps with a better designed signage policy).

Muscat cannot forgo such an obvious call.  Maybe the fish market redevelopment scheme was carefully thought trough in this spirit.  However if such a project seems unfeasible for Mutrah, it can work well for other Omani coastal towns, perhaps at a smaller scale. What do you think?
For more on Omani restaurants visit http://www.omanicuisine.com/

Saturday, 26 May 2012

What it takes to meet ambitious tourism plans

There were around 55 million tourist visiting the Middle East in 2011 (10% down from 2010). Oman hosted some 1.7 million foreign tourist which is 3% of the pie. In other words one in 33 visitors to MidEast decided to include Oman on its itinerary. These people were estimated to spend 1.28 billion USD, which is 753 USD per visitor. The cruise liners had a considerable share from this, disembarking close to quarter a million visitors last season.
The tourism authorities however do not seem to sit on these impressive results (which were considerably growing in the last couple of  years) and aim for more. Much more. Vision 2020 talks about 12 million annual visitors by 2020. That would be equal to what Egypt has now, and a third more than what UAE hosted in 2011 (9 million). Assuming current spending per visitor, the generated receipts would result in 9 billion USD revenue for the country (oil revenues budgeted for 2012 are over 15 billion USD).   I hope these are achievable targets, certainly it will take a lot of creativity and motivation from the tourism professionals to make this happen.

Achieving these targets will not only mean courageous planning and sharp implementation, but could require a much wider effort from the whole country: authorities and population alike. Taking the unrivaled friendliness of Omanis and elevating is to a genuine hospitality culture, along with preserving the natural attractions will be key. The whole visitor experience will have to be improved from the sense of arrival, through the driving around experience, to the wow effect of exploring the clean and untouched beaches, wadi's and mountains. Tourist are very picky and harsh customers, and while they can appreciate a sense of local touch in most of what they see, they will go unforgiving on quality of food, lack of road safety, slow or overpriced service, lack of hygiene or general cleanness. So there is a lot to do and cannot be all expected from the tourism ministry.
(numbers should be considered indicative and are taken from unverified online sources: newspapers, magazines and third party analysis)

Monday, 21 May 2012

The Where-To-Go-On-Week-End dilemma made fun

We already stressed the importance of domestic travel for creating a less volatile tourism for Oman.
There are quite a few ways to stimulate domestic tourism from discount vouchers offered to residents and/or employees, all the way to week-end and family packages.  Few might think of making the selection of your destination easier as a measure to improve domestic tourism. They might be wrong.
Choosing where to go for a week-end get away in Oman is not always an easy task. One cool and unique way of converting this dilemma into fun is to create a short online visual test that gauges your mood for the type of a week-end experience.

Hotels.com booking engine had such an experiment some years ago, using the VisualDNA platform. The idea was to ask you to express a series of visual choices that best describe your mood or desire to experience for the upcoming trip. Based on the answers the database behind the slick and cool platform recommended a selection of hotels that were believed to offer what you need. To get a feel of the the approach try the personality test on the same site.
Transposing the idea into domestic destinations more like only hotels, could be an original and unique way to promote some less known but interesting Omani destinations. Could be a nice project for the private sector or the ministry? Your call...

One thing for sure, it is perhaps time to get inspired from more than just Oman Off Road  or the Y magazine weekly recommendations.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Using the power of subtle promotion

It is well known that more often then not an article or an "independent" review worth more than tons of expensive advertising.  Obviously this is nothing new for the professionals responsible for the promotion of Oman as a tourism destination. I am almost sure that there is an (albeit small) team in the Ministry of Tourism, that works on putting together an agenda of international sporting, cultural and media events to be hosted in Oman for 1-3 years ahead. Coordinating bidding work, lobbying with sport diplomats, media people, organizing fam trips for decision makers is all part of their daily work.

They must be thinking along the lines of sporting events that have wide international exposure and at the same time Oman lends itself for them, such as Sailing, Rally, Golf, Cycling, Mountain Biking etc.  I can be confident that the experience of hosting the 2010 Asian Beach Games is used as a momentum.

In terms of cultural events they surely work closely with the ROH programming team and focus on widening the reach beyond Muscat Festival’s traditional base and the Opera season.

They think of media productions like movies shots, treasure hunt shows (like the US one Oman hosted some years ago), extreme sport reality shows, documentaries (sea life, diving, historic etc.). The press treasure hunt launched in Jan 2012 is a good initiative. 

They conceptualize viral initiatives using social media. Who does not remember posting for the best job in the world of Tourism Queensland calling for an island administrator with not too much work on pristine Australian tropical beaches? I am sure with a bit of brainstorming a number of comparable but not copycat ideas can be generated buy our team and perhaps involving a few external people.

(On the movie note: take for instance the recent 'Salmon Fishing in the Yemen' movie with Ewan McGregor and Emily Blunt.  It ended up being a great promotion for Yemen. The paradox was that due to the instability in Yemen the movie was shot not in Oman but, guess where...in Morocco.)

So coming back to our small team, since all of this is successfully happening, the tourism decision makers are concerned on increasing the capacity and output of this team to aim for more creative and innovative promotion of the country and bigger tourism impact. But what if I am wrong?

Monday, 7 May 2012

ROH: Enter the World of Music

In order to create a sustainable long lasting musical foundation for Oman, the ROH has to take a leading role. No doubt that the flagship cultural institution of the country can have a huge impact on the musical education of the nation. And I am not only thinking about kids friendly production (like the recent Cinderella), but to a whole different approach of introducing kids to classical music, musicals and opera. It has to prove that ROH is there to teach as well, and is available for everybody open to music.
  • Musical summer camps – for kids of different age groups where they are presented with different genres, trying instruments, learn about an orchestra and prepare a little performance to end the camp with.
  • Music mornings – 1 hour sessions for schools presenting instruments, or showing how movie and cartoon music is written, how singers warm up, practice and perform, what back of the stage world means etc.
  • Classical remix of known pop and rock pieces – showing how familiar mainstream tunes can have charm and dynamism if remixed even for a small orchestra etc.
These are all ideas that bring down the perception of music being an elitist thing that most have no access to or genuine interest in, and show that opera is not a mere social promenade or status exhibit. An interesting example is the Educational Program of  the Sydney Opera House. With a little bit of planning and organizing work these programs can also have a huge promotion value not only for ROH but also for Muscat.

The Royal Opera House needs to be much more than just an opera house. It has to lead these efforts of introducing people of Oman, especially youth, to the wonderful world of music.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Space for sports

Sports can have a huge impact on the sustainable quality of life. With so much available land in Muscat and few sporting opportunities, the creative entrepreneurial mind could go wild in coming up with viable small business ideas that adds sporting and entertainment options and enhance attractiveness of the city. Here are a few generic ideas:

1. 5-aside artificial turf pitches – There are already a few available, that are literally packed most of the evenings, when weather is suitable for play. Flood lighting and eventually covering them with a suitable canvas extends the usage. With several suitable locations a championship like the Powerleague in UK could constitute not just great entertainment but also a recruitment ground for the professional sport. There is hardly anybody in this country who does not love football and there is a whole lot more to capitalize on this.

2. Go kart tracks – for small kids, youngsters and adults.  Who would not love to test its driving abilities.  Why not do it risk free and in safe conditions. An extra feature could be the provision of driving skill improvement classes, on hard top, gravel and sand. Example...

3. Cricket park – small size pitches and basic service facilities would contain ad-hock paying in uncomfortable and sometimes risky locations.

4. Water ride center – as part of a marina, a short rowing track combined with skillful kayaking track or even a small motor boating hurdle track to test abilities against the clock.  Bumper boats can increase the thrill and water bikes can further ad to the all ages character of the attraction. For the most adventures a coastal kayaking water trails can be added with various stop overs.

5. Playgrounds and adventure parks – there is not better age to start exercise than childhood. Such adventure parks besides providing great fun, challenges the kids mentally and improves their coordination. Due to lack of trees in Muscat probably the best solution would be a semi indoor version, or replacing trees with poles and shades.

These off-the-bat ideas can be significantly improved adding on details and further elements.  Most of these have traction with locals and improve the love for sports. As beneficial side effects are forming personalities that have improved endurance, dedication, commitment and consistency in anything they do. These are traits that can do a lot of good for this country.