Oman: Tourism, but not at any price

Juliet Highet

Global Insight: Tourism

The sultanate wants to attract tourists to help diversify its economy. But only those who have a respect for Oman’s ancient culture should consider booking a flight to Muscat


Dhow building yard at Sur

Photo: Juliet Highet

Flying in over the white-domed roofs of Muscat at night, I was already experiencing a gentle surge of pleasure at returning to one of the most attractive capitals in the world. The drive from the airport cruises into town along freeways lined with flowers and ministerial buildings exemplifying the modern mughal style, a blend of creative contemporary architecture and satisfactory Moorish aesthetics – think Alhambra. Exquisitely tiled mosques glitter between more austere yet gilded banks; luscious parks are evidence of the conscious greening of the Arabian desert. It’s a revelation of what recent wealth advisedly applied can do for a country.

This was my 11th visit to Oman. Why? It’s laid-back to the point of languor, so different from that ode to commerce, Dubai – not a steel and glass high-rise in sight, not a whiff of the sex ‘n’ shopping culture that has come to define tourism there. Oman retains a sense of pre-oil ancient Arabia, especially beyond the capital, and in Muscat, too, history is still tangible. Despite rapid redevelopment, life never seems to be rushed in this haven of unspoilt, small-town charm.

Nowadays tourists from all over the Middle East travel to Muscat for its exceptionally tranquil atmosphere. In summer they flock to Salalah in the south, relishing its cool monsoon conditions and verdant landscape – a seasonal oasis on a grand scale. Its people have self-respect and evident pride in their distinctive heritage, as well as the modernisation introduced over the last 50 years by their benevolent Sultan. In the past, Oman was isolated from its neighbours by deserts, mountains or sea, and this has had a subtle effect on its inhabitants, who tend to be softly reserved and dignified, yet with a relaxed and hospitable bonhomie.

With its vestiges of past civilisations, little-known archaeological sites, intriguing old cities, castles and forts to prove it, as well as sleepy atmospheric rural and fishing villages hardly touched by time, it’s the perfect environment for high-class tourism to flourish. Oman is calm, chic and safe, Conde Nast Traveller magazine choosing it for its list of ten must-visit places. Clearly a ‘now’ destination, it’s not for slim wallets or indeed lager louts. However, Oman is easy-going. Alcohol is accessible in hotels, some restaurants and bars. Increasingly open-minded Omanis are treating their blossoming nightlife as a real investment in their bid to poach tourists away from their neighbours, and there’s a vibrant eating-out scene, ranging from upmarket restaurants at hotels by the seashore, like The Beach at the achingly elegant Chedi, or the Sultanah at the Shangri-La, to authentic Arab outlets, such as Kargeen or Bin Ateeq.

It is possible on a budget to explore the epic scenery, which includes a 2,000 km long coastline of pristine, secluded beaches, which one does not have to share with loads of visitors. Oman is often overlooked as a snorkelling and diving destination in favour of the Red Sea – but what lies beneath the ocean is worth checking out. Turtles emerge to lay eggs in late summer, dolphins swoop and smile. What better way to relax after a long flight than to cruise along the coastline on a wooden dhow at sunset? Oman also offers spectacular mountain ranges and hidden wadis (river valleys), with their crystal-clear streams and pools. Photographers, tourists and residents all marvel at the nation’s dramatic landscapes.

Part of Oman’s drive to enlarge its tourism sector is to decrease dependence on oil and natural gas revenues. Construction of luxurious hotels is encouraged, as well as tournament-standard golf courses, marinas and dive centres. However, all new developments are required to maintain Oman’s local building laws, with their height and colour restrictions. Stringent laws against disruption of the environment have also been imposed – the nation boasts the region’s cleanest beaches and it is illegal to drop litter. Speaking earlier this year, Maitha bint Al Mahrouqi, undersecretary at the Ministry of Tourism, said: “The Sultanate of Oman supports the continued development of sustainable tourism initiatives across the world – initiatives that are firmly grounded in the protection of the natural world and local communities and those which are aligned with Oman’s historical and traditional beliefs.”

Nothing much has changed, nor will it, in the narrow alleys of Muttrah’s ancient souk, in which frankincense crystals burn in funky painted clay censers or more urbane chased silver ones. The evocative fragrance of this incense that caused the region to be called Arabia Felix for more than 1,000 years, mingles with spices, sandalwood and pungent essential oils like oud, some of it so valuable it is kept in safes. Donkeys loaded with Indian pashminas edge between women some of whom are dressed in bright East African kangas, a legacy of the time Oman colonised Zanzibar (and which make great beach sarongs).

Antique wooden chests from the island, silver khanjars (the traditional curved daggers worn on ceremonial occasions to this day), old amber and silver jewellery are very collectable. I successfully bargained for some fine old lithographs of the superb 18th-century mansions outside the souk on the crescent-shaped sweep of the Corniche. Opposite, anchored in the harbour, ocean-going dhows once sailed as far as India, Indonesia and China to deliver incense, while importing teak, spices, silk and ceramics. One can still see working dhows edging between modern shipping and little motorboats bringing in the catch to Muttrah’s fish souk.

Oman came late to tourism, learning from the mistakes of others. Speaking at the first Arabian Travel Market Conference, held in Muscat, the then Omani Director General of Tourism, Mohsin Khamis Al-Balushi, said: “Naturally we are promoting tourism to achieve economic gain, but we are determined to preserve our heritage, our cultural and Islamic integrity. We are promoting our country as rich in cultural values by targeting up-market tourism. We will avoid mass tourism with all its negative values, though ours is not a closed, narrow-minded society. Tourism has educational value – by sharing our culture, we are enriching the human heritage.”

Leaving Muscat, I travelled between the mountains and the sea to the old town of Sur, passing the archaeological site of Qalhat, formerly an important port, with 13th-century arched cisterns built by the princes of Hormuz. The cisterns stored water brought there from the hills by a system of channels still criss-crossing Oman – falaj – irrigating the land on a time-share basis. Sur was the main port for trade with Oman’s east African empire, with a racy past involving running slaves and trafficking in arms, along with importing ivory, cloves and ostrich feathers.

Now the creek is lined with listing, half-built dhows, their pitch melting under the blazing sun. Time was when the shipyard was famous for building magnificent ocean-going baghalas, resembling Portuguese galleons.

One evening, from the top of an enormous sand dune, I watched the colours of the desert deepen as the sun set, and tuned into the total silence. I was at the edge of the Sharqiyah desert, known as Wahiba Sands, where the dunes ripple along over 200 km, some of them 100 metres high. After consuming lamb kebabs we danced under the stars to live Arab music. I walked back that night across the sand to my barasti (palm-frond) hut. The silence was infinitely profound, the constellations above impossibly bright.

As Sultan Qaboos has said: “Tourism, yes, but not any kind. What we want is quality, not quantity. We have a culture to take care of.”

About the author:

Juliet Highet is an author and photographer specialising in travel, the arts and culture


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