New York Times
Oman Opens Its Doors
the Sultanate has begun to welcome foreign tourists to its inviting
beaches and historic forts
THINK of the Persian Gulf and what do you see? Gulf war soldiers,
burning oil, bearded fanatics, polluted seas and flat, bleak desert.
What does not come to mind is vacation.
of Oman, and even the most seasoned traveler might have difficulty
conjuring up any image at all. But the strategically placed Sultanate
of Oman is not only one of the most beautiful countries in all the
Middle East, it is also a glorious place to vacation, well worth the
eight-hour flight from London or what would be a 14-hour trip from
New York, were there a nonstop flight from the United States to Muscat,
the capital, which there is not -- at least not yet.
town of Nizwa, a former capital of Oman inland of Muscat; on the
right is the mosque.
entrance to the Persian Gulf, Oman also looks out on the Arabian Sea.
more than 1,000 miles of pristine coastline, Oman, about the size
of Kansas and shaped like California, offers visitors wide-ranging
terrain and experiences -- from striking desertscapes where camels
and jeeps race along silky sand dunes, to tropical seaside resorts
with palm trees and world-class fishing and diving. There are country
markets where farmers, silversmiths and craftsmen haggle over varieties
of incense and intricately worked silver daggers and jewelry, yet
in Muscat visitors can attend theater or concerts of the Omani Philharmonic.
inland lies Oman's backbone, the great Jabal Akhdar, the Green Mountains,
whose sharp peaks of green-tinted rock soar to 10,000 feet and offer
climbing, hiking, and camping alongside that rarest of sights in this
part of the world, freshwater streams and dramatic waterfalls.
has always been different from other countries in the Arabian peninsula
and most of the Middle East. Long isolated by choice from the rest
of the region -- indeed, from most of the world -- Oman has only recently
opened up to tourists, and given the relatively high prices of its
hotels, the Omanis seem intent on developing tourism that caters mainly
to wealthier visitors.
could be described as "unknown" as late as 1966 by Wendell
Phillips, the American archeologist and oil consultant, the fault
is largely its own. For many years, Oman neither sought nor welcomed
of the foreigners who came intermittently brought little but conquest,
occupation and despair to Omanis, starting with the Persians, whose
King Cyrus the Great conquered Oman in 536 B.C.
invaders came from what is now Iraq. Then came the Mongols, and then
the Persians again.
early 16th century the Portuguese invaded, bombarding and destroying
Omani cities, as did the Turks a generation later. But around 1650
independent rule was re-established and has been more or less maintained
since then. As a result, Oman can claim to be among the oldest independent
sovereign Arab states in existence today.
old port in Muscat; Oman's capital enjoys a beautiful setting,
surrounded by mountains and overlooking the sea.
the Omanis themselves were great travelers, traders and empire builders,
ruling large parts of East Africa and even Zanzibar, their culture
was soon marked by cultural and culinary influences unknown in most
parts of Arabia. While Oman may be linked by land to the Arabian peninsula,
it looks out to the east. So happily for Omani food and art, the influence
of India and even China remains strong. And because it was always
a trading society, Oman has almost always been rich, long before oil,
which Oman began producing in 1967, late by Gulf standards, and which
now provides the country with half its income. Four thousand years
ago, its wealth was based on dates, copper and frankincense, the fragrant
gift of kings that is still burned in homes and offices and exported
at exorbitant prices. Later Oman prospered because of its trade in
slaves, gold and spices.
30 years, Oman's oil has enabled its ruler, Sultan Qabus bin Said,
55, to develop and educate the country and provide its people with
an average per capita income of around $9,000 a year. (The population
of around 2.5 million includes about 750,000 expatriate workers.)
But unlike some other oil-rich countries, Oman has enjoyed orderly
development. As a result, its culture and identity are largely intact.
Compromise between modernization and tradition is the rule: so there
is a McDonald's, but no golden arches.
wear a light-colored dishdasha, a flowing, ankle-length robe, and
the distinctive ammama, a brightly colored cashmere turban, or an
embroidered skull cap called a kumma. Official occasions in Muscat
require men to wear the Omani equivalent of black tie -- an exquisitely
crafted ceremonial dagger, the khanjar. (In the countryside, daggers
are routine and not ceremonial.) Rural women in markets still cover
their bodies in black silk robes and their faces with dyed, eagle-like
masks. But younger women in the capital opt for simpler silk headscarves.
Omani women of all classes and regions still paint their hands for
weddings and other celebrations in fanciful filigrees made with henna,
a natural dye.
Saudi Arabia, where women cannot work with men or drive and there
are no elections, Oman now has several women in the partially elected
Consultative Council, and Sultan Qabus is committed to implementing
by the year 2000 the Basic Law he announced in November 1996. What
is in effect an Islam-based constitution contains a bill of rights
guaranteeing a measure of press freedom as well as tolerance and equality
of both sexes under law. There is no religious police. Alcohol is
paint filigree designs on their hands and feet with henna for
cannot be legislated, but what the visitor instantly feels, is the
warmth of Omanis. On entering Nizwa, a former capital two hours inland
from Muscat, one passes not a grandiose statue of the leader, but
a roundabout decorated with a giant Arabic coffee urn, surrounded
by silver-lined cups, a symbol of Oman's legendary hospitality. Another
traffic circle, a reflection of the Sultan's British education, has
at its center a huge stack of books, homage to the country's emphasis
a city of over 500,000 encircled by mountains overlooking the sea,
is breathtakingly situated. Old and new blend, and no skyscrapers
mar the view of its quaint harbor or the mountains. The modern roads,
landscaped with native plants, are spotless. And Muscat's mayor has
commissioned artists to decorate the rocks scattered throughout the
city like stone thunderbolts with colorful artificial waterfalls,
colorful mosaics and fiberglass renditions of animals, among them
the Arabian tahr, a mountain goat related to the ibex. Once nearly
extinct, the tahr has doubled in number to an estimated 2,000 since
a hunting ban was enacted in 1976.
day last winter, the best time to visit Oman, my husband, Jason Epstein,
and I met several friends for a week in Oman, which allowed us to
see only a small portion of the country. Staying with a friend in
Muscat, we toured the capital, then mountain villages, the silky dunes
of the Wahiba Sands in central Oman and the balmy southern city of
Salalah, reminiscent of Mexico's coast before mass tourism and also
the site of deserted ruins and ancient cave paintings. Finally, we
went camping on a beach where rare turtles lay their eggs.
our trip, we were invited to a private lunch in the Jabal Akhdar,
the mountain range split by a spectacular canyon -- an excursion not
to be missed on any visit to Oman. We were served traditional Omani
specialties that can also be found in the country's handful of excellent
began with a dish of braised goat that had been wrapped in a dry marinade
of local spices, buried for several days, and cooked on a large preheated
stone. Then came the best curried chicken either of us had ever had,
accompanied by Persian rice, a variety of garlic-touched fresh vegetables,
and for dessert, ice cream in date syrup, a local specialty that puts
chocolate to shame. The sumptuous meal ended with fresh mint tea and
Arabic coffee, accented with cardamom -- the first of many excellent
meals in this exquisitely civilized country.
lunch, we toured the rugged mountain villages in a rented four-wheel
drive vehicle -- recommended for Oman's rough terrain and readily
available in the capital and most main towns. To encourage Omanis
to remain in their villages and not migrate to Muscat, the sultan
has not only brought roads, power, water, health clinics and schools
to the most remote mountain enclaves, but he is also building low-income
housing in traditional Omani style, renovating Oman's 400-year-old
forts to encourage tourism, and providing loans and grants to help
Omanis continue farming, making local handicrafts and enjoying their
traditional way of life.
through the Wadi Al Ain, a valley in the Jabal Akhdar, or Green
Mountains, which range up to 10,000 feet.
Sultan Qabus took power, the country had only six miles of paved roads,
a handful of schools and two hospitals. Today, Qabus rules a unified
country with 22,800 miles of uncrowded paved or gravel roads that
make driving a pleasure, modern telecommunications, and a safe country
with almost no crime and good health care.
was discreetly opened to tourism only three years ago. The "non-objection
certificates" once sparingly approved by contract British officers
who held senior posts in Oman's military and civil service as late
as 1990 are no longer required. Omani and foreign travel agencies
and even hotels can help arrange tourist visas.
time limited and our group's tastes diverse, our itinerary required
compromise. A seasoned traveler in the Middle East with a fear of
heights, I did not relish either a balloon trip over the desert, a
popular outing, or yet another camel ride. So when our small band
drove out to the golden Wahiba Sands to ride jeeps, horses and camels,
I sat happily in a Bedouin camp tent, munching dates and reading one
of Phillips's splendid books, "Oman, a History."
on the other hand, is no trekker. So he passed up hiking in the mountains
or in one of the country's 83 nature reserves, whose flora and fauna
are protected by law. But we both loved our visit to Fort Jabrin,
one of the many 17th-century fortresses, with commanding views of
the desert and surrounding mountains. We were delighted with the town
of Sur, where the dhows that have sailed the Gulf since antiquity
are still built.
lively interior souks, or markets, were another favorite. At the Friday
market in Sinaw, we bought tribal rugs and cashmere turbans; our guide,
Said Al-Harthy, who works as a public affairs assistant in the American
Embassy in Muscat as well as running a tour company, taught us how
to tie the turbans around our heads. I added several pieces of antique
Bedouin jewelry to my collection, along with a beautifully worked
silver belt buckle, and a colorful Omani dress, traditionally worn
over embroidered harem pants. A friend bought several varieties of
frankincense and bargained hard for an ammunition belt, with live
bullets. Haggling, which is half the fun, insured that prices were
who love the sea as I do should visit Salalah, the capital of Dhofar
in the south, 90 minutes by air from Muscat. During our two-day visit
to the region, which has its own culture, language and traditions,
we stayed at the Holiday Inn, a simple, rustic hotel on a palm-lined
beach. Salalah's splendid beaches, which offer snorkeling and diving,
are particularly inviting during the months of November through March.
we toured the ruins of Samharam, an ancient town on the sea, and had
a picnic under drawings made by the inhabitants of nearby caves nearly
a thousand years ago.
of our visit, however, was a trip to the turtle nesting beaches of
Ras al-Hadd. For millenia, green sea turtles have come ashore after
dark on these beaches to dig deep holes in the sand and lay their
eggs. While we could have driven 45 minutes to spend the night at
a hotel, Said had made arrangements for us to camp, and we pitched
tents on a neighboring sandy site. There we roasted lamb and listened
to Omani songs on a cassette player until almost midnight. Then we
quietly made our way to the beach where one giant turtle after another
inched her way out of the water. We watched as the turtles dug their
holes, and sometimes abandoned a half-dug hole only to dig another
a few yards away. The mother turtles sighed and groaned as they began
laying their eggs, one by one. The 50 or so tourists who had gathered
to witness this astonishing event are forbidden to use flashlights
or flashbulbs as the turtles climb ashore, but once the egg-laying
began, the turtles seemed oblivious to their silent audience.
45 minutes later, the weary turtles, with great difficulty, heaved
themselves out of the deep trenches they had dug, covered the holes
with sand, and inched their way back into the sea. Exhausted, we returned
to our tents for a few hours of sleep under a sequined sky. But just
before dawn, Said woke us to watch the second act of this drama: the
birth of baby turtles whose eggs had been laid around 50 days before.
only a few of the hatchlings dig their way out of the sand that morning,
but even that was thrilling.
Omani guards were supposed to prevent tourists from interfering with
the turtles's first steps towards the sea -- they must make their
own way against all predators to adjust the internal navigational
systems that will enable them to find the same beach again for the
next 70 or 80 years -- the Government guardians were not vigilant
that morning. A German tourist, tired of watching a tiny turtle try
to dig its way out of its deep sand cradle, picked the little fellow
up and placed him at the water's edge. Many of us were appalled, but
the woman got the photo she had come for.
the country, laden with gifts from Omani friends -- pottery incense
burners, tiny sacks of frankincense and Amouage, one of several musky
perfumes made here and among the world's most expensive scents. A
few weeks after my return, I sat next to a woman wearing it, and complimented
her. The rest of the dinner was spent reminiscing about our respective
trips and exchanging advice on what we agreed would be return visits
to a place that is one of the world's vacation secrets.
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