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 buzzing.

Oxford Economic Forecasting estimates that Oman will see an 8.3% rise in tourism in 2004, a remarkable figure considering its location.

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 apartments.

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 will come."

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 budget.

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 centuries, away.

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, gold-and-crystal chandelier.

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 [email protected].

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 Cogswell

To contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].

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