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Tourism is a priority sector in Oman since its potential for growth and popularity has been recognized the world over.
By: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer
“I can’t believe it! Everything is so modern, yet it looks ancient!” My daughter Muna remarked as we drove through the city of Muscat, Oman’s capital. Her words had merit. The mythical home of ‘Sindbad the Sailor’ and the legendary source of frankincense and myrrh, Oman is today an ancient land enwrapped in the aura of our 21st century.
The wide avenue on which we were making our way was lined on both sides with well-tended trees and shrubs, and beyond rose the most modern of structures, incorporating the finest inheritance taken from Arab/Islamic architecture yet modern in their facilities.
The enchanting villas and other eye-catching edifices told, better than in words, the story of the Sultanate of Oman, a land trying hard to preserve the traditional while galloping into the 21st century. The government has committed itself to maintaining the country’s cultural identity despite the on-going modernization in all facets of life. Great efforts are being made to preserve Oman’s traditional culture, including its architecture, arts, dance and music.
Today, Oman, a nation of over 3.5 million, is the oldest independent state in the Arab world, claiming a historical presence of some 4,000 years. Yet, even though it remains one of the most traditional countries in the Arab world, it is a modern land with the most up-to-date infrastructure. Its towns and cities have been modernized without being bulldozed out of existence.
A seafaring imperial people, the Omani once controlled large parts of the east coast of Africa as well as areas in the Indian sub-continent. They sent trading ships as far away as China and the Malayan Archipelago. By the end of the 19th century, their empire extended from the Indian sub-continent to the shore-lands of East Africa, from Somalia to Zanzibar and beyond. One can see traces of this empire reflected in the country’s inhabitants – a great mixture of their former colonial presence in other lands.
Islam came to the country in 630 A.D. brought by ‘Amr Ibn al-‘As, an emissary of the Prophet Muhammad. Oman’s illustrious Muslim history has given it the base on which to build its present evolvement.
Early in Islamic history, a group, called the Khawarij, broke away from mainstream Islam. Later, a schism of this sect, led by ‘Abdallah ibn Abadha, established their own type of Islam which became known as Ibadhi after its leader. They settled in this part of the Arabian Peninsula and made the oasis of Nizwa, Oman’s capital for many centuries, their stronghold. Today, most Omani are members of this sect, which practices a moderate type of Islam.
The next important event in the country’s history was the coming of the European powers. The Omani navy dominated the area until 1506 until the Portuguese arrived in the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese occupied the country and made it for 150 years their main garrison base in the region until expelled in 1650 by the Omani Imam Sultan Bin Saif. Omani independence is dated from that year, making the country the second oldest independent state, after Morocco, in the Arab world.
From the time of the expulsion of the Portuguese until the 19th century, Oman was an imperial power, vying with Portugal and Great Britain for influence in the lands edging the Indian Ocean. The Omani Empire reached its zenith in the mid-19th century under Sultan Said Bin Sultan (1804—1856). After his death, the empire declined and the country eventually became a British protectorate.
When the current ruler Sultan Qaboos bin Said took power, from his father, Sultan Said bin Taimur in 1970, Oman was living further back in history than the Middle Ages. For many decades the country had been sealed from outside influences, remaining for years a backwater within the Arab world. Even the most basic of amenities of modern life were missing. There was only 8 km (5 mi) of paved roads, while electricity, hotels and running water were barely known. There were no newspapers, radio or television stations, municipal water systems or streetlights, even in Muscat, the capital.
Today, Oman is one of the most modern countries in the Arabian Gulf area. Its cities overflow with landscaped boulevards and buildings of exquisite architecture. Excellent roads connect all parts of the land, from the eerie-neat suburbs of Muscat to some of the most diverse and striking austere landscape in the world. Education is nationwide and the country is one of the most immaculate in the world. Because of this cleanliness, it is often referred to as ‘the Switzerland of the Gulf’.
Under Qaboos, the country’s progress has been outstanding. Oil and natural gas deposits and honest government have allowed the Sultan to create, then develop a solid infrastructure for the country. Education is compulsory, leading to a well-funded employment sector. Development has come in stages, based on five-year plans that have tried to balance modernization with the preservation of the country’s glorious past.
Additionally, Oman is on the verge of being a sought-after tourist destination. It has developed a tourist infrastructure that is constantly being upgraded.
In terms of history and especially scenery, Oman has much to offer. Its splendid Hajar Mountains, topped by the 3,073 m (10,086 ft) high Jebal-Akhdar (Green Mountain), amaze the onlooker with their colors – sparkling in hues from green to pink. The mountains stretch for 650 km (404 mi), from the Musandam Peninsula to the coastal town of Sur. In between these mountains stretch flat khaki-colored plains dotted with small villages, surrounded by lush irrigated palm groves. On the slopes above the villages, seemingly still guarding the mountain passes, are the remnants of ancient watchtowers and once mighty forts.
The surrounding deserts, whose sands run from grey to red and all the shades in-between, are breathtaking in their splendor. Westward, they reach the ominous Rub al-Khali (Empty Quarter), which stretches for hundreds of miles, through Saudi Arabia to Yemen.
Added to this, the 1,700 km (1056 mi) long coastline is edged by very clean beaches that are lapped by an azure ocean full of king- prawn, moray eel, perch, sardine, shark, and swordfish. Amid these creatures of the sea, one can enjoy a wide range of water sports, above all, dhow (traditional Arab boat) sailing, much sought after by historic sea buffs.
In the south, the landscape of Dhofar Province kept lush-green by the monsoon winds, has a timeless allurement. Salalah, its capital, built more or less yesterday, is a spotless town of landscaped boulevards and cream-colored sandcastle architecture.
In the past, this southeastern corner of the Arabian Peninsula was the home of a flourishing trade in frankincense and myrrh – the most sought after substance in the ancient world. The use of both these incenses has faded with the years, but in the souks of Oman today, they are still on the shopping list of inhabitant and tourist alike.
With this spectacular scenic magic, Oman is the place for those who yearn to enjoy the enticements of nature in all its colors and observant government officials are preserving this endowment to a great extent. More than any other country, as far as humanly possible, an ecological balance is being maintained.
For visitors seeking history, there are over 500 historic citadels and forts, a good number restored, dotting the countryside. From among these are the two forts Mirani and Jelali, guarding Muscat’s harbor; the Portuguese Fort, guarding the neighboring port of Muttrah; the fort found in the oasis of Nizwa; and the splendid fort at Rustaq, guarding the approaches to Jebel Akhdar.
The modern enwrapped in the past and the historic monuments are beginning to draw the visitors, especially the affluent. The government has adopted a policy of encouraging controlled quality tourism. Its commitment is reflected in the continual improvement of visa formalities, provision of grants and soft loans and efforts in creating a positive investment climate in which tourism can thrive.
Oman is a tale from The Thousand and One Nights noted for its intricately worked silver daggers and where, in places like Sur, wooden dhows are still constructed by hand. Its souks overflowing with frankincense, myrrh, perfume, and spices, diffuse the enticing aroma of past ages. After haggling in these medieval souks, the visitor can then partake in the fine food and drink offered in all the country’s excellent hotels and restaurants.
Tourism, non-existent a few years ago, is now making rapid progress and is expected to soon become one of the reliable sectors of the economy. However, in spite of the rapid expansion of the tourist industry, the emphasis is on quality – of some 6,000 hotel rooms in the country, the majority are in five-star hotels.
The country has all it takes to make the land tourist-attractive. Crime is almost non-existent; the Omani are friendly and welcoming; the streets and boulevards are pristine and free of litter and graffiti; excellent paved roads criss-cross the country; autos are mostly new and clean, and there are no beggars in sight. However, Oman seems to be one of the world’s best kept secret destination – surprising in this century of mass communication.
The government has proceeded cautiously to ensure that this development is pursued under proper control. Hence, there is no question that this land of Sindbad – it is believed this famous legendary sailor was born in Sohar on the coast of Oman – is set to lure visitors from the world’s affluent societies.