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The Other Middle East

Perception Is Not Reality in Oman

Omani Hospitality
While visiting a mountain community, a spontaneous invitation from a retired military officer led the author and her guide, Saud, into this colorful sitting room where the host and his son served coffee and fresh fruit snacks.

Street fighting, suicide bombers, dictatorial leaders holding the world hostage to increasingly expensive oil, women literally and figuratively behind a veil of oppression, and a language impossible to read or speak—all are frequently associated by Westerners with Middle Eastern travel. The peaceable Sultanate of Oman is one example of a Middle Eastern country where these perceptions are not reality.

Oman is a slim 105,000-square-mile country about the size and population of Kansas, with a 1,000-mile coastline defining the strategic northeast flank of the Arabian Peninsula. Its modern history only began when 30-year-old Sultan Qaboos Bin Said took the throne in 1970. Thirty-five years later his unwavering vision for social and economic opportunities for all—along with his patience and practicality have made him a beloved role model for the nation.

In 1970, Oman had 10 miles of paved road, no organized educational or healthcare system, and its fledgling oil economy was already faltering. During the ultra-conservative rule of Qaboos’s father, virtually all ambitious Omanis had gone abroad to study, work, and live. The new Sultan immediately decided that if offered free universal education and healthcare, Omanis would come back home. At his invitation, they brought their skills, money, and experience to help translate his vision into a workable reality.

In 2005, 2.8 million citizens share an enviable prosperity, women have training and career opportunities equal to men, traditional culture and Moslem religious practices are honored, and international differences are respected.

Visitors Are Welcome

Recognizing that oil will not be an income earner much longer, Sultan Qaboos has turned to tourism as a key revenue stream. Not surprisingly, he has chosen a woman to head the new Ministry of Tourism.

The country’s approach to tourism has been to identify and protect the naturally and culturally richest attractions, restore the most dramatic examples of pre-Islamic and early Moslem architecture, and to focus on visitor access to ancient archaeological sites in a region where people have lived and traded for thousands of years. Virtually all areas of the country are now served by scheduled domestic flights and thousands of miles of paved roads with spectacular off-road scenery.

Pre-Islamic Fort
Authentically restored pre-Islamic forts and castles are popular with both visitors and Omani citizens.

A Sample of Attractions

  • Numerous restored tribal forts and castles showcase historic furnishings, tools, and weapons.
  • Many of Oman’s desert Bedouin families invite visitors for coffee or even an overnight stay.
  • Over 400 species of birds make Oman one of the most spectacular feathery crossroads in the world.
  • In central Oman, only a few hours by car 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). 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.
  • Marine mammal watching and scuba diving are 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.
Bedouin with Camel
A Bedouin searching for fresh grazing for his camel is an increasingly rare sight in desert areas where four-wheel-drive vehicles are now each family’s main transport.

Challenges

Plane travel in such a long country is a necessity. Flights may not go daily, so advance planning is crucial. Between domestic flights in and out of the capital, Muscat, there are plenty of 1- or 2-day road trips into the mountainous central region, to desert camps, or to coastal areas. Historic Muscat, population 500,000, offers a lot to see and do, including museums, the impressive national mosque, traditional markets (souqs) and cultural festivals.

While there is an abundance of high-end multi-national resorts and hotels with Western-style everything, inexpensive hotels and furnished apartments are difficult to locate and to book in advance.

Fortunately there is a growing number of government-sponsored hostels with furnished rooms and self-catering suites for all ages and family groups, located well away from main traffic areas. I was particularly impressed by two new hostel complexes, one in Salalah and another near Areen Al Ashra on the central coast.

For More Info

There are plenty of inexpensive local Omani eateries in towns but not in villages, where people commonly eat at home. Once in the front entrance, every customer goes straight to the public sink area somewhere in the back of the restaurant, washes hands and face, then goes to the front counter for a paper napkin to towel down. 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 usually 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. If in mixed Omani company, I ate at a table out front without any protest or dirty looks from other customers. In the exclusive company of women, however, I happily slipped into a curtained room with equally good service.

Best tourism web site: www.omanaccess.com/explore_oman/tourist_info.asp. A visitor entry visa for up to a month costs $15.

Seasons: Visit Oman between October and April when temperatures are moderate. The south Salalah coast is drenched by monsoon rains from June to September, keeping it surprisingly green and gorgeous.

In-country tour specialists: See a catalogue of operators and tourist information at www.destinationoman.com/touroperators.html.

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 accomodations, this option should open up more budget-minded opportunities for independent travelers to interface informally with Omanis in 2006 and beyond.

The only outsider guidebook presently available for Oman is Lonely Planet's Arabian Peninsula (1st ed., 2004). Consequently, its content is understandably thin on each of eight countries. Several guidebooks are published in Oman, so visit a bookstore soon after arrival and browse for your favorite.

Alison Gardner, Senior Travel Editor of Transitions Abroad, is also publisher of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com, a richly illustrated resource for senior travelers featuring ecological, educational, cultural, and volunteer vacations worldwide. Readership is 1.6 million. Contact her at Alison@travelwithachallenge.com.

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