Three generations of Bedouins continue to share a simple but cherished lifestyle in the desert.
Story and photos by Travel with a Challenge editor, Alison Gardner
In the peaceable Sultanate of Oman, whose name is often confused with Amman, the capital of Jordan, visitors will experience an enviable balance of deeply-rooted traditional culture and welcome contemporary reality, a country where present day negative perceptions of the Middle East will be quickly swept away.
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!
Omanis love children and raise them conscientiously as a family and as a community responsibility. This Bedouin man with four of his six sons radiates a characteristic family pride.
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.
On a hotsprings picnic with their families, these confident, friendly Omani teenage girls asked if they could take my picture, even while I was still considering how to ask diplomatically if I could take theirs!
Regional costumes, dances and music are the focus of the month-long Muscat Festival in January/February each year.
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 [see separate article on Forts and Castles], 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.
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.
Restored pre-Islamic and Islamic forts and castles are popular attractions with both visitors and Omani citizens.
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.
A Bedouin nomad searching for fresh camel grazing land is an increasingly rare sight in desert areas. Now 4WD vehicles are every family’s main transport.
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.
Salalah’s monsoon season transforms the Dhofar region into a uniquely green vision. Oman Ministry of Information
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! Don’t miss our comprehensive article on Salalah.
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 carry 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 hotel pool.
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 state-owned Salalah Hostel provides low-cost, high quality accommodation for independent travelers.
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.
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 salad.
While visiting a mountain community, a spontaneous invitation from a retired military officer led me and my guide, Saud, (right) into this colorful sitting room where coffee and fresh fruit snacks were prepared and served by our host and his teenage son.
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.
The author and a beautiful Bedouin mother did some cross-cultural fashion comparison during a tour of the family’s domestic areas. No male visitors allowed!
Best tourism websites: www.omanaccess.com/explore_oman/tourist_info.asp and www.omantourism.gov.om/. The annual Muscat Festival runs for roughly a month straddling January and February, http://muscat-festival.com/, featuring regional cultures, costumes, dances, music and cuisine from around the country.
Seasons: Visit Oman between October and April when temperatures are 75 to 95 F. by day and 65 F. at night [20 to 30 degrees Celsius]. Muscat is hot and humid between May and September, not recommended. The south Salalah coast is drenched by monsoon rains from June to September, keeping it surprisingly green and gorgeous in a region otherwise surrounded by sandy desert. This is the Arab visitor’s choice of time to visit Salalah, when temperatures rarely exceed 30 degrees Celsius.
Public transport: Public road transportation is small-scale and somewhat casual in timing, making it more invisible than in most countries. For very reasonable fares, modern mini-vans and taxis dash along the highways between communities or into the capital. You can go a long way on five or ten dollars in an oil-rich country!
Car Rental: Highway driving between towns and sites is a pleasure in Oman with well-engineered roads and all signs in English and Arabic. Traffic drives on the right. The maximum speed limit on open road is 75 miles or 120 km per hour and seat belts are compulsory. Visitors may use an international license. Women driving in Oman is common.
In-country and overseas tour specialists: A catalog of in-country operators, contact info, and tour expertise is found at www.destinationoman.com/touroperators.html. I particularly recommend Mark Tours and Car Rentals, www.mark-oman.com/welcome.htm.
Enjoy two accompanying articles about Oman on this website:
Salalah: land of frankincense, monsoons and camels.
Oman’s Forts and Castles: heritage architecture restored.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.