he Sultan's palace in Muscat, Oman,
with huge columns painted from a palette that's both modern and
traditional, is a stunner. But in some ways, even more stunning
than the design is the near absence of guards around the building.
This is the residence of a totalitarian ruler of a Middle
Eastern country, and yet you'll find tighter security at Elvis'
former residence, Graceland.
Welcome to Oman. Though it borders Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Iran
-- and Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia could all be said to be in the
neighborhood -- Oman appears nonchalant about living in a region of
the world beset by terrorism.
And, consistent with their denial that they're in a danger zone,
Omanis are rolling out the welcome mat for visitors, especially
Western visitors. Tourism in Oman, if not exactly booming, is
Oxford Economic Forecasting estimates that Oman will see an 8.3%
rise in tourism in 2004, a remarkable figure considering its
Francesco Frangialli, secretary-general of the World Tourism
Organization, visited earlier this month and came back gushing. "It
surpassed all my expectations," he said. "The country is blessed
... [and] its tourism potential is immense."
The government is working hard to facilitate tourism
development. Visa regulations were relaxed last year (U.S. citizens
-- and those from 71 other countries -- can obtain a visa upon
arrival), and in March, an ambitious, $805 million resort project
called the Wave was announced.
The government donated four miles of beachfront property just
outside of Muscat for the Wave and provided an undisclosed amount
of equity toward the public/private development.
When completed, the project is envisioned to include three
upscale hotels, an 18-hole golf course, a yacht club and a marina,
as well as hundreds of private villas, condominiums and
When looking at the plans in the light of current political
realities, one has to wonder if this is an Oilfield of Dreams
scenario, with a wealthy Gulf State hoping, "If we build it, they
That worked for Bahrain and Dubai (the jury's still out on
Qatar), and as regards tourism potential, Oman certainly has more
going for it than any of those states.
Oman has not only stayed at arm's length from the bad news
coming out of the region but it has natural attractions that
Frangialli characterized as "awe-inspiring."
Dubai and Bahrain offer fancy hotels, great shopping and sandy
beaches -- and the sand usually keeps going and going and going.
Oman, however, has diverse scenery and accessible culture.
There are classic desert dunes in the Wahiba Sands south of
Muscat, but there are also high mountains and a junglelike tropical
region in the south. Visitors can watch sea turtles nesting, go
bird- or whale-watching, cool off in desert sinkholes and visit the
Mountain of the Sun (also called Oman's Grand Canyon).
Thirty years ago, Oman was an underdeveloped hermit-nation, but
the current sultan, Qaboos Bin Said, slowly opened the country to
tourism and has built a Western-style infrastructure that can
accommodate various styles of travel, from carriage-trade to
Perhaps most impressive, he modernized the nation without paving
over the past. True, visitors coming from the airport to the
capital will see Dairy Queens, KFCs and Burger Kings in modern
strip malls along the highways, but when they reach the center of
Muscat, the atmosphere of the main souk (market) seems a world, and
Some of Oman's old-style atmosphere can be deceptive, however.
Much of what is new has been built in traditional styles, so it's
sometimes difficult to tell whether a structure is newly
constructed or recently restored.
Round fortress towers dotting the hills that line the harbor of
the beautiful port city of Sur appear at first to be relics of
Portuguese occupation; it is only as you draw near that you can see
that they are in far too good shape to be even a decade old.
Nonetheless, the country is undergoing an architectural
renaissance that finds its highest expression in the elegant (and
massive), 3-year-old Grand Mosque in Muscat.
The mosque compound can accommodate 20,000 worshipers, including
some in an open courtyard that has a retractable roof to provide
shade. The main domed area is carpeted with the world's largest
Persian rug and is illuminated by a 43-foot-high, eight-ton,
At the other end of the opulence scale, tourists can spend an
evening in the desert with a family in its tent, dining on lamb and
rice as the Bedouins do (sans cutlery).
Such an evening might also include an opportunity for female
visitors to have henna designs put on their hands as well as the
chance to buy Bedouin weavings.
Among the things for sale during one such evening was a
curiosity that seemed to symbolize Oman's blend of the traditional
and new: In the weak light of a kerosene lantern, a guide explained
that the soft, cylindrical weaving a tourist was holding was a cell
phone holder, decorated with classic Bedouin designs.
To contact Editor-in-Chief Arnie Weissmann, send e-mail to
U.S. operators rethink Oman
PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- Most U.S. tour operators that offered
travel arrangements to Oman dropped them after 9/11, but some may
be ready to resume operations. Travcoa, for example, which used to
offer tours to Oman, is considering returning in 2006.
For now, Tours Specialists here operates a basic package that it
will tailor to the needs of the client. The tour flies into and out
of Dubai. It includes a trip by private car to Khasab, a day cruise
on the Sham Fjords and a visit to Jebel Harim, one of the highest
peaks on the Musandam Peninsula.
The land cost for the six-night trip is $1,000. Air fare is
typically in the $700 to $800 range, according to Tours Specialists
President Gabriel Beyda, but could get cheaper with increased
service by Emirates airline scheduled to begin June 1. Call (800)
223-7552 or visit www.toursspecialists.com. -- David
To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].