When it comes to attracting western travelers, the Middle East has a serious public relations challenge these days, even more so the
perceptions for North American travelers than European travelers. Street
fighting, suicide bombers, instant wars, dictatorial leaders controlling
increasingly-expensive oil, women literally and figuratively behind the veil are
all perceived as compelling reasons NOT to plan a trip to the Middle East. With
this article and two accompanying articles, all based on my recent visit to the
Land of Frankincense, let me share my experience as well as Oman's culture,
natural heritage, history and hospitality.
About the size and population of Kansas, Oman is a slim 105,000 square mile
country with a 1,000-mile coastline defining the strategic northeast flank of
the Arabian Peninsula. Its modern history literally started when 30-year-old
Sultan Qaboos Bin Said took the throne in 1970. Thirty-five years later, his
unwavering vision for the country’s social and economic opportunities for all,
his practicality, patience and generosity of spirit have made him a beloved role
model for the nation. They have also made him a very effective and diplomatic
leader who, I for one, would be happy to nominate as Secretary General of the
United Nations. He should be a shoe-in!
In 1970, Oman had 10 miles/16 kilometers of paved road, no organized
educational system or health care delivery, and its fledgling oil economy was
already staggering. During the ultra-conservative rule of Qaboos’s father,
virtually all ambitious Omanis had gone abroad to get educated, work and live.
Bringing his own British high schooling and British officer training at the
prestigious Royal Military Academy Sandhurst to the job in 1970, the new
30-year-old Sultan immediately made some startling decisions: there would be
free universal education and health care from day one, and well-educated,
skilled Omanis abroad must be enticed back home. At his invitation, they brought
their talents, money and world experience to help translate his vision into a
workable reality over several decades.
Fast forward Oman to 2005 where 2.8 million citizens share an enviable though
not excessive prosperity, where confident women really do have training and
career opportunities equal to men, where traditional culture and Moslem
religious practices are honored and supported alongside an appreciation of 21st
century lifestyles and respect for international differences. Everyone is
expected to qualify to the best of their abilities (education at every levels is
free) and everyone who is able is expected to work. The citizens of Oman seem
happy to follow their Sultan’s own conscientious example.
International Visitors are welcome
Acknowledging that oil will not be an income earner for much longer, Sultan
Qaboos has set his sights on tourism as a key revenue stream in Oman’s future.
Not surprisingly, he has chosen a woman to head the Ministry of Tourism.
Having decided some years ago that sustainable tourism was a worthy
direction, His Majesty’s methodical approach has been to identify and protect
the naturally and culturally richest attractions, authentically restore the most
dramatic examples of pre-Islamic and early Moslem architecture, develop first
class roads and airports, and most recently to focus on visitor access to
ancient archaeological sites in a region where people have lived and traded for
thousands of years. Modern-day oil wealth hardly compares to Oman’s frankincense
wealth 2,000 years ago!
Virtually all areas of the country are now served by scheduled domestic
flights, 8,000 miles/13,000 kilometers of paved roads and 15,000 miles/24,000
kilometers of well-graded gravel roads with spectacular off-road scenery,
particularly in the rocky wadis or canyons. Throughout the country, road signage
and business signs (from laundries, gas stations and grocery stores to local
restaurants and accommodations) are equally prominent in English and Arabic. If
you get lost, it’s your own lookout! With a younger population already being
educated in English from the earliest school grades, professional tourism
training of Omani citizens is the last piece of the hospitality strategy.
a sample of what you must see in Oman
- Numerous restorations of tribal forts and castles illustrate an astonishing architectural sophistication, often showcasing historic
furnishings, tools and weapons. See our article on Oman’s heritage architecture.
- Oman’s rural Bedouin lifestyle while visiting a desert family for coffee or
even an overnight stay.
- Oman’s vibrant yet traditional capital city of Muscat where you may visit
many excellent museums, the country’s most spectacular mosque, participate in a
calendar of traditional festivals day and night, and enjoy the lifestyle of an
Arab oil millionaire in some fabulous accommodations if you wish to afford them.
If not, do walk through the public areas and grounds of a few luxury hotels, and
you will sample how it feels without paying the bill.
- Over 400 bird species from three continental flyways make Oman one of
the most spectacular feathery crossroads in the world.
- In central Oman only a few hours drive from Muscat, there are tent camps of
varying sizes for visitors to enjoy a true desert experience (some more
traditional and tranquil than others, so do your homework and know whether you
want dune bashing in a 4WD vehicle or camel riding and nighttime black-out
conditions for astronomical contemplation!). Further south and even more remote,
Oman’s western border straddles the Arabian Peninsula’s infamous Empty Quarter
(Rub al Khali) that can be sampled by camel or 4WD vehicle camping.
- Exploration of dramatic geological formations is especially popular through
the steep-sided wadis or dryland canyons.
- Abundant marine mammal watching and scuba diving as rewarding activities,
either aboard traditional wooden dhows or modern cruise vessels.
- Conservation efforts may be fully appreciated by visiting major wildlife
breeding reserves throughout Oman, including the Ra’s al Hadd Turtle Reserve,
the Dimaniyat Islands Nature Reserve, and the Arabian Oryx Sanctuary.
- Thanks to the annual monsoon, the southern state of Salalah features more intensive agriculture, diverse bird populations, and tropical
green space than anywhere else in the country. Camels, individually and in
herds, have definite right of way over vehicles and they know it!.
Oman is a Muslim country so it is important to observe a conservative
dress code out of respect for the cultural norms. In public places, women should
wear clothes that cover their upper arms and legs to the knee. It is necessary
to cover hair when entering a mosque or other holy place, so carrying an
attractive scarf and you will fit right in. Men should wear long trousers and
shirts. Of course, shorts, sun tops and swimwear are fine at the beach or by the
Accommodation challenges are predictable in a country still young in tourism.
There is an abundance of high-end, multi-national hotel and resort accommodation
with western-style everything including menus. However, mid-range to inexpensive
hotels and furnished short-term apartments with a more traditional atmosphere
and location are limited, difficult to find, and hard to book in advance unless
you are a regular. Remember, you are competing with visitors from other Arab
countries who love to visit Oman and with local Omanis who are also encouraged
by their Sultan to explore their own country with surprisingly large family
groups in tow.
A new accommodation jewel is the growing collection of ultra-modern
government- sponsored hostels with impressively furnished rooms and modern
self-catering suites for all ages and family groups. Fresh, inexpensive,
cafeteria-style meals are also available in these professionally-run hostels.
The only problem is they tend to be located away from main traffic areas and the
beaches, so finding them can be a bit of a challenge. I was particularly
impressed by two new hostel complexes, one in Salalah and another near Areen Al
Ashra on the central coast. More are opening in 2006 and 2007, so the
budget-minded should check out these gems.
The Austrian Tourism Academy in Muscat is starting a bed and breakfast
training program for Omanis wishing to invite visitors to stay in their homes.
Together with the expanding hostel accommodation, this option should open up
more creative opportunities for independent travelers to interface informally
with Omanis in 2007 and beyond.
The etiquetee and fun of eating with the locals
It is a
pity that the majority of visitors to Oman eat in multi-national hotel
restaurants whose menus and service are always predictable and familiar to
westerners. If you wish to save some money and have a bit of fun, there are plenty of inexpensive local Omani eateries in towns but not in
villages where people commonly eat at home. Throughout the country, they are
similar in design, price and the predictable hearty, healthy menu of rice served
with lavish helpings of chicken, fish or beef and always a large green
Once inside the front entrance, every customer without exception goes
straight through to the public sink/hand washing area located somewhere in the
back of the restaurant, washes hands and face, then goes to the front counter
for a paper napkin to towel down. Arborite tables and chairs in the front area
are customarily occupied by men on their own or by foreigners, while Omani
families or women and children alone choose individual family rooms with a
curtained door, colorful rugs and cushions on the floor, often a TV in the
corner and possibly a shelf of toys and books for children.
When in mixed Omani company as I was often with a male guide and driver, I
ate with them at a table out front without any protest or dirty looks from male
customers. In fact, they happily gave me lessons (not very successfully) in
eating with your hands, as they do, rather than with utensils. However, in the
exclusive company of women, Omani or foreign, I happily slipped into a curtained
room with equally courteous and efficient service.