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Island charms of Masirah

Conrad Prabhu

ONCE dubbed the ‘Island Jewel of the East’ Masirah Island has all the makings of a tourist destination in its own right. Diverse landscapes, white-sand beaches and a rich and unique faunal heritage have long been a key part of this island’s natural appeal. But it’s offshore Masirah that many latter-day tourists are gravitating to.

The island’s nearshore waters are being increasingly hailed as a playground for enthusiasts of water sports of every hue. From windsurfing and jet-skiing to diving and sport fishing, these turquoise waters are luring growing numbers of mainly Western tourists drawn by what many describe as the island’s “textbook” water-sport settings.

Further away from the coast awaits another exciting facet of Masirah’s rich ecological wealth — a unique array of whales, dolphins and other marine creatures. Sightings of humpback whales are not very uncommon in the waters south of the island. Bottlenose dolphins frequent these waters as well. “Masirah’s rich biodiversity is at the heart of the island’s appeal as an eco-tourism destination of the future,” says Ali Amer al Kiyumi, Adviser for Nature Conservation at the Ministry of Environment and Climate Affairs. “The island serves as a habitat for a rare and often endangered selection of endemic species that are unique to these parts. Conserving these species and their habitat is key priority for the government in the wider context of developing the island as an eco-tourist attraction.”

Besides hosting one of the largest populations of endangered Loggerhead turtles, Masirah Island is also home to diverse species of birds, mammals and other wildlife, says Al Kiyumi. An estimated 30,000 female Loggerheads visit the Island’s beaches during the roughly four-month May to August nesting season every year.

In addition to the Loggerheads, there are three other sea turtle species — Green, Olive Ridley and Hawksbill — nesting at Masirah. A fifth species — the Leatherback — also can be found in the surrounding waters, while the island serves as the only nesting site in the entire Arabian region for the Olive Ridley, says Al Kiyumi.

Equally diverse is the Island’s birdlife. According to experts, a total of 328 species of birds have been recorded and reported in the past on the Island, including some uncommon and vagrant species. The inter-tidal and sub-littoral mudflats, the shallow coasts and small numbers of freshwater wetlands serve as habitats for migratory and nesting species. Notable among the wading bird species are the Lesser Sand Plover, Greater Sand Plover, Turnstone and Bar-tailed Godwit. During winter, several species of gulls, terns and raptors visit the Island in large numbers. They include the Sooty Gull, Swift Tern, Caspian Tern, Osprey and Marsh Harrier.

Another little known, but endangered, species is the Masirah Gazelle. Environmental experts have been able to garner very little about this timid, yet beautiful animal. Once conserved, officials see the potential to promote Masirah as a destination for eco-tourism in combination with the island’s unique wildlife. Masirah’s ecological importance is also enhanced by the presence of cetaceans, such as whales and dolphins, in the coastal waters. Sightings of nearshore species such as bottlenose and humpback dolphins, and as well as those thriving further offshore such as humpback whales, Bryde’s whales and common dolphins, are not uncommon.

In recent years, the Whale & Dolphin Research Group of the Environment Society of Oman (ESO) has conducted a series of surveys covering the cetacean species in the waters off Masirah. The main focus of the surveys has been the Humpback whale which, as part of the Arabian Sea population, is the only documented non-migratory population of humpback whales in the world, according to experts.

In 2006, survey teams also reported the rare sighting of a pod of killer whales, confirming findings that the species breeds in the region feeding on a diet of fish, squid, other cetaceans, birds and turtles, and reaching a length of up to 10 metres. Given this rich and diverse natural heritage, Masirah Island has all the key ingredients of an eco-tourist attraction, says Ali al Kiyumi.

“Masirah is a treasure whose ecological and tourist potential is yet to be fully fathomed. Our goal is to work with the local population, as well as the private sector to protect, conserve and develop this treasure in a sustainable way for the ultimate good of the local community and the economy. We are working towards developing an integrated management plan to make the most of Masirah’s island charms in a sustainable manner.”

But it’s the recent opening of a new luxury resort on the island that promises to position Masirah as an attraction not just for local and regional tourists, but international travellers as well. The Swiss-Belhotel Resort Masirah Island was formally launched on June 1, 2009, offering visitors a convenient and comfortable new base from which to explore and enjoy the island’s charms.Financed and built by the Omani government, the property is being managed by Hong-Kong based Swiss-Belhotel International, which already operates the rebranded Sohar Beach by Swiss-Belhotel. The 4-star Masirah property features 22 guest studios, suites and chalets, a ballroom, an all day dining restaurant, swimming pool, health club with jacuzzi and a multiuse court. Occupancy levels have been steadily rising in the wake of the resort’s launch last month, underlining Masirah’s rising popularity in the regional and international tourist markets, says Joe Coelho, General Manager. The resort, part of the well-known Swiss-Belhotel chain which manages properties in China, Vietnam, Philippines, Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Kuwait, is banking on its world wide marketing network to promote the island globally. Additionally, the hotel is also networking with local and regional tour operators to draw a wider mix of visitors to the island. Special packages have been tailored to attract leisure, business and weekend guests, says Coelho. Interestingly, the resort aims to position the island as a year-round destination, the General Manager explains. “The May-July period is ideal for turtle watching, followed by a season of wind-based water activities spanning the July-September period. This season is ideal for wind-surfing, kite-boarding and other wind-based water sports. From October to March, the waters off Masirah are just perfect for diving, snorkeling, sport fishing and so on. It is also an ideal time for honeymooners.”Kite-boarding — a new water sport in which a person is drawn across the water by a kind of steering kite — is a hot new pursuit at Masirah Island. The resort is working with kite-boarding specialists, Hawaii Dragon Kiteboarding, to popularise the sport on the island. The company provides all the necessary kiteboarding gear for enthusiasts eager to enjoy an exhilarating new sport, says Coelho.Importantly, tourist traffic into Masirah is expected to surge once the island is connected to the national high-speed ferry service later this year. The state-owned National Ferries Company SAOC (NFC), which manages the high-speed ferry service, is planning to launch two new services: one linking the Hallaniyat Islands off the southern coast with Hasik and Shuwaymiyah in Dhofar Governorate. The other will ply between Shannah with Masirah Island off the eastern seaboard.Coelho is optimistic that tourist arrivals will continue to grow. “Masirah Island is targeted for major development. Combined with the expected launch of the high-speed ferry between Muscat and Masirah via Sur, and efforts to have Oman Air fly down to the island, we are confident that traffic is poised to grow. Indeed, we have already witnessed Masirah being placed on the international map for wind surfers, as well as the tour operators’ network. On our last sales call, we also had enquiries from — strange, but true — Alaska.”