Oman’s mountain bike tourism potential
Talk about biking in Oman and most cycling enthusiasts will immediately think of the Tour of Oman, a stage race on the UCI Asia Tour calendar won in 2013 and 2014 by none other than Chris Froome.
However cycling in the Middle-Eastern sultanate goes deeper than this high-level international race for the professionals.
As the oil-based economy grows, the urban sprawl increases and the demand for cars rises, local cycling activists are calling for the preservation of mountain bike trails.
The staggering beauty of bucolic Oman alone would be enough reason to campaign for protection. But there is also a more economy-driven motivation behind the move to develop and promote mountain biking in the Arab country. Oman is striving to establish itself as a tourist destination, with the goal of diversifying its economy. According to Andrea Wenke, from the Tourism Department of the Sultan Qaboos University, mountain biking can play a central role in drawing tourists to the country.
Ms Wenke is a cycling advocate so obviously has a particular interest in promoting the bicycle, but in her role of researcher at Oman’s premiere academic institution, her judgement is sound and backed by numbers. MTB tourism can be big.
IMBA, the International Mountain Bike Association, has plenty of resources for those who wish to dig deeper into the impact of mountain biking on local economies – especially in rural areas. But a few numbers are enough to give the scale of the movement. In one of the traditional realms of the sport, the USA’s Rocky Mountain region (8 States with an aggregate population of less than 23 million), cycling supports more than 60,000 jobs, generating $4.1 billion annually in retail sales and services. Having good MTB trails is highly cost-effective for local businesses. And it is great for tourism-related jobs: in a just-released study on employment in the European cycling sector, the European Cyclists’ Federation has estimated 524,000 people in the EU hold positions related to bike tourism.
Ms Wenke, who is currently looking for partners to conduct a cross-sectoral study on the impact of cycling tourism and events on the local economy, has a strategic view for the country’s tourism sector.
“Oman is funding top class cycling events with public money, enhancing the image of the country as a destination. This is good but an improved destination image is just a start. Further development is essential to generate ‘in-country value’ from increased inbound travel.”
Mountain bike can be a key component in this process, provided that planning and provision of infrastructure and information are delivered at an adequate level.
The matter cannot be steered single-handedly. Event organisers should be brought into planning processes. Oman seems to be on the right track (no pun intended).
Alongside the Tour of Oman, in fact, the sultanate is home to the Transhajar, the Middle East’s premier mountain bike stage race. The Transhajar is now run by Omansail, the national governing body for the influential sport of sailing, which also operates as a de-facto sport events agency.
“There are unexploited opportunities for rural populations. The cooperation with the local communities hosting the event has been insufficient in the past, with no income and employment generated”, observes Wenke.
State-owned Omansail can ensure Transhajar contributes to the development of Oman’s mountainous areas. “What is needed to boost tourism for good? Infrastructure, companies dedicated to cycling and hiking, trained MTB/hiking guides, and service facilities for cycle tourists,” Wenke concludes.
Although no long-term cooperation with the Ministry of Tourism has started yet, Omansail has already announced that the trails used for the race will be marked and made available to MTB enthusiasts all year round.
Such actions help put the sultanate on the map of remunerative, development-inducing MTB tourism, while providing locals and expats with opportunities to enjoy physical activity.
What about other forms of cycling in the country? Marc is a western expat who has been living in Oman long enough to have an opinion on this.
The neighbouring United Arab Emirates have set the benchmark. The Dubai Autodrome and the Abu Dhabi F1 circuit are open to cyclists one evening a week and are hugely popular. Oman has just started opening the national Automobile track to families on Friday mornings, to try to replicate UAE’s success.
Marc concludes: “The vast majority of the active members of the Omani cycling society are western expats. Good infrastructure, however, can encourage more people to take up recreational cycling. Local drivers are generally unfocussed and undisciplined. Dedicated car-free circuits would increase perceived safety and ultimately cycling levels.