Oman is changing, can the Omanis?
Why taxis are more important than hotels for Omani tourism
I write this after a hectic 24 hours in the sultanate where I shared the highs and lows of the CW Awards Oman for this year.
You can read the interviews and full list of winners in next week’s Construction Week (or of course you can take peek online www.constructionweekonline.com) and I promise you there are some amazing achievements.
But what I wanted to talk about today is the country itself, which impresses me and disappoints me in almost equal measure each time I visit.
It is, like many others in the Middle East, a country going through a transformation to its infrastructure – roads, rail and air travel – thanks to a huge government cash injection.
The government is spending its oil wealth bringing its country into the 21st Century and trying to ensure a better future for its people.
A huge building programme does not change a country. Insisting its people are paid higher wages does not change a country. Giving people jobs without a purpose, does not change a country.
Citizens must understand the future vision, believe in it and agree to take part. And I’m not convinced that they do in Oman.
I admit that my view is based on anecdotal stories from various workplaces, but the best example is the Muscat taxi service.
Like many governments across the region, tourism is its default mantra and supposedly the answer to many of the country’s future economic needs. One look at Dubai and many countries think they can emulate its success without recognising the huge compromises and changes the rich emirate has accepted.
Omani leaders are aiming for an ambitious 12 million visitors a year by 2020 - the World Travel and Tourism Council reckons it’s unlikely to top 3m.
From Khasab to Salalah the sultanate is one of the most attractive countries in the Middle East.
But is that enough?
To ensure tourists visit, you must make it easy for them. Adventure tourists already know about Oman and wealthy Europeans have already discovered Muscat. But to bring in the holidaying hordes - and the money - you have to accommodate them.
For me, Omani taxi drivers are a microcosm of what needs to change in the sultanate. They are part of their country’s infrastructure too. I’ve been spoiled by Dubai taxis, they’re cheap, metred and rarely dishonest but visitors get around easily and safely (relatively).
In Oman taxis are not metered, so only the unwise or inexperienced set off without agreeing the fare. Cab drivers wrongly assume any visitor must be rich so there is no comprehension of the upset people will feel later when they discover they have paid an unfair fare.
The Omani taxi trade is a father-to-son business, closed to outsiders, which utilises down-market battered saloons, where petrol is cheap and brake pads are rarely changed.
So, the completion of the next big hotel complex is definitely not a signal that Oman is ready for the tourist rush. I’ll know it’s tourist boom time when the taxi trade smartens up its cars… and fits meters.