MUSCAT (Reuters): A record number of visitors flocked to Oman during the first two months of the holiday season as political tumult in the wider region sent tourists to the usually quiet Gulf Arab sultanate, tourism operators say.
Figures from the ministry of tourism show Oman received 220,000 tourists in October and November this year, up 50 percent compared with the same period in 2010.
“Political unrest in Egypt, Syria, Bahrain and even Yemen has become a boon to Oman. Tourists who would normally go to Tunisia and Libya are still unsure about situation there. They now find Oman a safer place to spend a quiet holiday,” Khalaf al-Jadidi, owner of Desert Dunes which organises overnight camps in remote areas, told Reuters.
As temperatures plunge in Europe, more tourists in search of warmer weather over Christmas and New Year breaks are expected to arrive in the non-OPEC oil exporter, hotel officials say.
A report from the tourism ministry forecast a rise of 35 percent in the number of visitors to the country in 2012. Oman hosted 1.12 million tourists between January and November this year.
“We operate at the moment full house and we will continue to do so in the next three months or so in the same way. It is an unprecedented tourist visitation this season which I can only link to the Arab Spring phenomenon,” said Talal Al Araimi, sales assistant manager at the Muscat Intercontinental Hotel.
Popular uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa this year have toppled veteran rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and forced Yemen’s president to sign away his powers.
Syria is grappling with an eight month-old anti-government protest movement and Bahrain is still dealing with the fallout from a crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in March.
Unrest also reached Oman earlier this year, when hundreds of Omanis took to the streets demanding more jobs, higher pay and an end to graft by government officials, but the scale of the protests and the scope of their demands were much lower than in other Arab countries.
“We should be thankful that Oman’s five month protests did not damage its reputation as a major tourist destination of the Gulf country. Visitors consider Oman as the safest Arab country to visit and we are benefitting in a big way at the moment,” Jadidi said.
Two people were killed in February when security forces in the industrial city of Sohar dispersed a stone-throwing crowd of protesters. Oman’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, promised reform and handouts to calm the streets.
Oman has numerous oases and villages as well as a 1,700 km (1,060 mile) long coastline with white sandy beaches that attract tourists from Europe and the United States.
“The bookings we’ve received for the next three months are overwhelming and we pass the tourists to rival companies to share the burden. Most of them go to the deserts and picturesque villages. Beach areas are in high demand as well,” said Said Khalfan, a tour specialist who runs a holiday website.