MagazinesPost Magazine

The ascent of Oman

With its oil running out, the Arabian sultanate is hoping tourists will see frankincense and want a little myrrh. Words and pictures by Tim Pile

 

It doesn't rain much in Muscat. In fact the capital of Oman sees less precipitation annually than Hong Kong can receive during a single sodden summer hour.

Summers in the sultanate bring a different kind of climatic hardship, though, as temperatures routinely reach a brain-boiling 50 degrees Celsius. It's no surprise, then, that Omanis make the most of their mild winter weather. Festivals and fashion shows, sailing regattas and cycling races are all aimed at attracting foreign holidaymakers and luring locals away from their beloved coffee shops and hubbly bubbly pipes.

Besides the organised fare, Muscat - "place of anchorage" in Arabic - is a city suited for leisurely exploration. It is wedged between a cluster of craggy hills, although finding a way up one to get your bearings is easier said than done.

Sensing I'm hopelessly lost, a small boy guides me along a tangle of ancient alleyways. We end up at a lofty vantage point crowned by a watchtower built by the Portuguese in the 16th century and overlooking one of the city's less upmarket neighbourhoods.

Seen through a forest of washing lines and satellite dishes, higgledy-piggledy houses in a huddle appear to be clinging together to keep from collapsing. Minarets pierce the skyline like exclamation marks, but few other buildings rise above two storeys.

Muttrah Souq, back down at sea level, has the whiff of Arabian Nights, or, more accurately, frankincense fumes, about it. Tourists doggedly haggle for ceremonial silver daggers and ornate brass coffee pots in stores predictably named Aladdin's Cave and Ali Baba's. Everyone seems to end up buying pouches of myrrh without knowing exactly what myrrh is.

The souq opens onto Muscat Corniche, which could have been designed with people-watching in mind; Omanis in spotless white dishdashas pour out of mosques and Filipino guest workers mingle with Burmese and Indian expats.

Arab codes of hospitality ensure that invitations to pause awhile come thick and fast along the seafront esplanade. Old-timers in cashmere turbans sit cross-legged playing dominoes. Faces taut with concentration suddenly crease into smiling offers of qahwa (coffee) and dishes of dates.

Omanis are delighted when travellers speak highly of the sultanate. It's almost as if the oil-rich nation has created a tourism industry solely to hear visitors rave about their corner of Arabia - rather than to boost the national coffers. In reality, though, there is much riding on the promotion of Oman as a holiday destination, according to Saif al Rashidy, director general of External Liaison for Muscat Municipality.

"Our oil reserves are going to run out in less than 20 years. Tourism offers us another chance," he explains, pausing briefly before adding, "Inshallah" ("God willing"). Diversification is the name of the game and it's hoped that smitten tourists will still be gushing long after the oil ceases to.

Oman lends itself to longer stays than neighbouring stopover destinations such as Dubai and Qatar. The country is about the size of Guangdong and Fujian provinces combined, with a population of only three million. Arriving from Hong Kong, the sense of space and crisp clean air take some getting used to.

Holiday options include desert safaris with overnight stops at Bedouin camps; visits to remote mountain villages; scuba diving; and even camel racing. Golfing breaks are also increasing in popularity, thanks to the guaranteed winter sunshine.

Now a regular fixture, the Tour of Oman cycle race is an early season (February) alternative to winter training in wet and windy Europe. When Belgian bike legend and organiser Eddy Merckx tried to drum up interest in the inaugural event four years ago, there were few takers. These days, teams clamour to be invited.

Blue skies, immaculate roads and enthusiastic local support attract the riders but Omani tourism officials are keen for overseas television viewers to see much more than a bicycle race. Carefully choreographed helicopter footage combines the action with lingering images of pristine desert scenery punctuated by hilltop forts, emerald oases and honey-coloured beaches lapped by the sparkling Arabian Sea.

To maximise the photogenic potential of the sultanate, stage three of the race begins at Nakhal Fort, 120 kilometres west of Muscat. Surrounded by lush date-palm plantations with the Jebel Akhdar Mountains shimmering in the distance, the stronghold looks so authentically Arabian that you can't help feeling it must be a Hollywood film set.

Below the ramparts, men in costume (movie extras?) perform a traditional Razha dance that involves a lot of chanting, drumming and twirling of swords. Keeping the old ways alive in the face of profound modernisation is a challenge the Omanis have risen to - with a little assistance from the government.

The annual Muscat Festival is a cross between a county fair and an open-air heritage museum. The free event, which showcases Omani and regional folklore traditions, lasts a full month (in January/February time) and the music and theatre performances, craft shows, circus and nightly fireworks displays attract almost two million visitors.

Taxis in Oman aren't metered but cabbies are often ready to strike a mutually acceptable deal. Once you settle on a driver and have his business card, he'll be on call for the duration of your holiday, should you so wish.

Fare negotiated, we set off through Muscat Gate and the old walled quarter, and find ourselves in desert terrain almost immediately. The road corkscrews up a wicked series of switchbacks, lifting us high above mountainous ravines and wadis, or dry river beds.

At the seaside village of Yiti there is little in the way of development, which only enhances its appeal. Accommodation is DIY - a scattering of four-wheel drive vehicles parked beside a row of tents pitched a few metres from the gorgeous green ocean.

The scenery is starkly spectacular further inland, at Wadi Dayqah Dam. It's early evening and the slanting sun stains the jagged peaks a ruddy crimson that bemuses the exposure meter on my digital camera. Oman is no place for the colour blind.

"See you again tomorrow," my personal taxi driver says, as he drops me off at my hotel, adding the obligatory "Inshallah".

In Oman, it's about the only word you hear more frequently than "frankincense".

 

Getting there: Qatar Airways (www.qatarairways.com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Doha, and from there on to Muscat.

 

Share

For unlimited access to:

SCMP.com SCMP Tablet Edition SCMP Mobile Edition 10-year news archive
 
 

 

Login

SCMP.com Account

or