With this year's opening of Shangri-La's Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa in Muscat, the Gulf nation of Oman continues its race to be the new Dubai. Kevin Pilley reports
Oman is playing catch-up - fast. In the capital, Muscat, the muezzins' calls to prayer compete with the noise from charter jets and construction sites. The talk in the shisha cafŽs, coffee houses and souks is now all about evolving markets, the new cruise terminal, and the country's first six-star resort.
The Barr Al Jissah Resort and Spa comprises three hotels, and is Shangri-La's third location in the Middle East. "We are committed to the region and will drive business to Muscat through our worldwide sales and marketing network," says Giovanni Angelini, Shangri-La's chief executive officer and managing director.
The US$207m (£109m) resort has three freshwater swimming pools, 19 food and beverage outlets, seven casual dining outlets, a nightclub, conferences facilities and an Omani Heritage Village, as well as a 1,000-seat open-air amphitheatre, a dive centre and a marina. There is also a "lazy river" along which diners can float to and from their meals, on gondolas running on an underwater monorail.
Fluctuating oil prices may have slightly affected the speed and scope of these developments but haven't halted them. Oman is still aiming high and looks to Dubai, Bahrain, Doha and Sharm El Sheikh for its role models. The sultanate sees itself as the sleeping giant of the Middle East.
"The whole of the ambitious project at Barr Al Jissah represents a pioneering step in building an infrastructure for tourism and developing Oman as a prime and distinct tourist destination," says Ziyad Al Zubair, managing director of the Zubair Corporation, the building contractor of Barr Al Jissah. "We have come a long way in a short time."
Attracted by the potential of the country's fledgling tourist industry, all the major international players - Hilton, Crown Plaza, Sheraton and Grand Hyatt - are already present in the country. With the arrival of hotel industry professionals, Oman has become a very cosmopolitan place, and has begun to take itself seriously as the "next Dubai". The government has promised to invest US$5b (£2.6b) in tourism over the next five years.
Hotel investment in Oman was traditionally very parochial, but a stable economy and political climate has whetted international investors' appetites. Room occupancy is in excess of 60%, and Four Seasons is rumoured to be about to enter the market.
New developments such as the Wave - a three-hotel ocean-front leisure and residential marina complex with a Greg Norman golf course, due to open by 2008 - reflect the confidence many investors have in the untapped potential of Oman. The Sultan himself is taking a very hands-on approach to the development of an increasing number of tourism-designated areas.
The Omani government has also earmarked a US$220m (£116m) budget to promote the country, with appointed representatives in all the major feeder countries - notably France, Germany and the UK.
Specialist UK tour companies, such as Discover Oman, are further filling hotel rooms. Charter flights have begun from Sweden, Austria and Russia, and national carrier Gulf Air has just started a twice-daily service from London's Heathrow non-stop to Muscat.
Property laws have been relaxed in order to encourage second-home buyers, and foreign investment is being encouraged through tax exemptions.
The Sultanate of Oman is effectively only 36 years old. The current sultan, the Sandhurst-educated Qaboos Bin Said, took power in 1970 when his father abdicated the throne. The Ministry of Tourism is only two years old, and there have been inevitable teething problems. An infrastructure has to be built, so a great amount of foreign catering and hotel management know-how is needed in Oman. Most of the lessons to be learnt come from the UAE.
German-born Paul Lenz, executive chef of the Barr Al Jissah, admits that communication is a problem. "English is the first language among non-nationals," he says. "Every foreign chef coming to Oman knows that he is perhaps a more important player than usual. It is such a new destination. And that is the challenge."
He adds: "There have been strides in local food production, and imports remain expensive. I want to establish consistency-driven food."
For Lenz Lore Koenig, director of sales of the Chedi hotel in Muscat, the challenge, in terms of rivalling Dubai, has been first and foremost to put Oman on the map of popular destinations. "This beautiful country stands out in terms of its breathtaking landscape, history and culture, and its warm and welcoming people," Koenig says. "I saw the huge potential on first sight. The ‘true Arabia' and The 1001 Nights immediately jumped to mind."
Because of the very high summer temperatures, the hotel market in Oman is very seasonal. The high season for Muscat is September to March and the low is June to August.
However, Salalah in the southern region of Dhofar, near the Yemen border, a 90-minute flight from Muscat, has set itself up as an all-year-round retreat even though, for four months of the year, it is blanketed in mists from the Khareef monsoon.
This makes Salalah the greenest and coldest place in the Arabian peninsula. "People come here to dance in the rain," says Michael Bamberg, general manager of the Hilton Salalah. "It is a land of frankincense, where the Queen of Sheba had her palace. It is lush and green, with coconut groves and banana trees. Some say it looks like the Peak District.
"We have always viewed Salalah as the region's best-kept secret," Bamberg adds. "We will continue to support the initiatives the government takes to open up the Dhofar region to international tourism. Increased tourism in Oman is expected to help the economic growth of the country significantly. Such development will provide education, professional training and employment opportunities for many thousands of Omanis."
Most professionals working in Oman are convinced that it will become the next Middle East success story, and that Muscat will indeed be the new Dubai. Infinity pools are no longer merely a desert mirage…
Working in Oman
Thirty-seven-year-old Madras-born Gireesh Nair is the executive chef of the Crowne Plaza in Salalah. Previously, he worked at the Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza in Dubai and has also worked in Asmara, Eritrea.
"Eritrea and Oman have many similarities," he says. "Comprehension of English is at a premium. We have to rely on expatriates, mainly Indians, who are very committed and career-orientated. But the government wants us to employ more Omanis. Tourism is seen as a source of employment.
"I have 22 on my brigade - five Omanis in the kitchen and five more stewarding. I am training two on the cold station and three in pastry. Baking is the local skill, although there are now catering schools offering hospitality.
"Narjeel or kingfish, and hamoor, are the traditional local seafoods.
"Most people working in Oman have come via Dubai.
The UAE remains a benchmark for Oman. It was my launch-pad. There, I learnt to create an efficient and cost-effective purchasing system, and implement HACCP.
"Dubai instilled into me the importance of very stringent control systems. Pricing is difficult. Supply routes are limited. Engineers are hard to come by.
"But the real challenge in the kitchen is attracting local custom. The locals still see haute cuisine as tourist food. The restaurant culture is very limited. But it is a wonderfully laid-back and safe place for a chef with a young family."