Despite 2015 seemingly dominated by violence in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, tourism in the Middle East saw a 3% increase in visitor numbers. As the spread of ISIS’s targets reach out into tourism hot spots like Turkey and Egypt cautious tourists are left asking is there any safe place to visit in the region?
Oman, nestled at the foot of Arabia, is home to 3.6 million people and some of the most beautiful geography in the region. Blessed with some 3,165 kilometres of coastline and stunning mountain ranges, the Sultanate has succeeded in that rare task of keeping out of the Middle East’s headlines.
The country has a peace first approach that sees itself act as a mediator of some of the toughest politics in the region. Being situated between Iran and Saudi Arabia perhaps forces such an approach and the country walks a delicate line keeping good relations with both. Indeed the country played a key role as host to the Iranian nuclear talks, has been involved in bringing together the parties to the Syrian conflict and has managed to avoid getting sucked into the fighting to its direct west in Yemen.
Senior Omani civil servants describe their country’s role as that of ‘the quiet diplomat’ avoiding large scale publicity at expense of getting a grip to some of the region’s toughest problems. Such a problem solving approach has also extended beyond the region with the Sultanate’s willingness to accept prisoners from Guantanamo Bay a huge part of Obama’s attempt to close the camp before the end of his presidency.
Yet security is not the country’s biggest challenge, rather the nosedive in oil prices that has forced some serious changes to the economy and a concerted attempt to diversify, with tourism nearing the top of that list of priorities. However the Oman’s strategy is not to replicate mass resorts such as those of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt or on Turkey’s Mediterranean cost, but rather offer a more refined, exclusive and expensive experience for smaller numbers of richer tourists.
So far many of the visitors have come from by word of mouth with repeat visitors from Germany and Britain leading the way as well as steady numbers from the nearby Gulf. New hotel infrastructure and a new airport are all in development and Oman will need to think about visitor experiences in the stifling summer and perhaps adopt a more pragmatic policy towards the hard to get alcohol licenses going forward. The country’s state of the art museum, facing the Sultan’s palace in the centre of Muscat, is soon to be opened and the capital’s Opera House was finished in 2011 complete with Italian marble and Austrian chandeliers.
According to UN figures Oman has developed more in last 40 years than any other country on planet and the Muscat skyline is dominated by cranes and construction. Meanwhile halfway down the coast the free zone of Duqm, once a small fishing village, is nearing completion complete with a new port, airport and hotels expected to host some 30,000-40,000 tourists a year. Whilst Dubai and the Gulf offer incredible skylines and record breaking architecture, the Omanis focus on low rise and more subtle demonstrations of their country’s highlights. The largest single tourist site is probably the Muscat Grand Mosque complete with a 14m chandelier and space for 8,000 worshippers. But perhaps the hidden jewel in the hidden Sultanate is the offer of not only getting up early to see the first sunrise in the Gulf, but also to witness the life cycle of turtles, creatures who predate humanity and who nest in the several of the county’s beaches.
Beyond the geography and the sights what I took away from a recent trip to the country was the incredibly warmth and hospitality of the Omani people. An official said to me that Oman sees itself as an Indian Ocean state that faces out not a Gulf state that faces in, as secrets go I’d imagine its not long till many more know about what the Sultanate has to offer.