Oman– An Arabian Odyssey
By Lisa Loverro
Located just south of Dubai on the Arabian Peninsula, the oil-rich nation of the Sultanate of Oman, as it’s officially named, is a land of white sand beaches, rolling desert dunes and expansive mountain ranges. It’s the legendary home to Sinbad the Sailor and the Queen of Sheba. Oman is a country that will cast its spell on you from the moment you arrive. A quick 35-minute flight from Dubai will land you in their capital city of Muscat; a place reminiscent of a fairy tale novel filled with warm people, historical fortresses and colorful palaces all surrounded by mountain scenery which can only be described as magical. The country itself is known for its abundance of Frankincense and it is from here that the Frankincense trail begins. Although a new destination to most North Americans, over the past few years Oman has become increasingly popular with visitors from around the globe. Considered the new jewel of the Middle East, the country has seen so much growth that it has begun expansion of the International Airport to increase passenger capacity from 5 million to 48 million per year, with estimated completion in 2015. Currently, there are no estimated figures of visitors from the United States and Canada but according to Amor Hardan, managing director of Elite Travel and Tourism (www.eliteoman.com), an in-bound tour operator based in Oman, the Ministry of Tourism is working on developing some marketing awareness for this segment. “Last year, we had a few groups from the U.S. and next year we will have a series of groups from Canada. With this, I am sure that there is also an increase of visitors from North America with other tourism companies,” states Hardan.
Castles and Forts
The capital city of Muscat offers a variety of accommodations including the über-chic Chedi (www.ghmhotels.com) and the better-known Grand Hyatt (www.hyatt.com), both just 15 minutes from the airport. Additional resort properties, the Al Bustan (www.intercontinental.com) and the Shangri-la (www.shangri-la.com), a few miles outside the heart of the city, are sprawling luxury destinations. There is also a new Anantara (www.anantara.com) scheduled to open early 2011 and other high-end properties will likely follow not far behind. The city itself is pristine, with whitewashed low-rise buildings and green, tree-lined streets. Its downtown waterfront area is picturesque, with a cruise ship-sized yacht belonging to their beloved Sultan Qaboos docked prominently in its harbor. Roaming through this area I felt a clear sense of history and tradition. A peaceful, deep-rooted tradition where women stroll through the markets in flowing, colorful embroidered dresses known as Jellabia worn over trousers called sirwal and men sport an ankle-length, collarless gown with long sleeves known as a Dishdasha. The main souq (market) here, Muttrah souq, is teeming with merchants selling frankincense, sandalwood and a variety of crafts. The massive fortress that dominates this area–which dates back to the Portuguese occupation during the 16th century–has now been turned into a museum. There are many sights to see in Muscat, like the Grand Mosque, the third largest in the world, and the Sultan’s Palace in Old Muscat. But once a tour of the city is complete, there’s an entire world of beautiful landscape and ancient villages waiting to be explored.
A trip to Nizwa—the former capital of Oman—with its spectacular forts and outdoor markets is an easy one-day tour and offers a unique cultural experience. Their camel and goat market, which takes place every Friday morning, should be scheduled if timing permits.
The country’s highest peak, The Green Mountain (Jebel Al Akhdar) allows for expansive views of canyons and plains while winding mountain roads through the small towns engulf your senses with Date Palm trees and scampering goats.
On the coastline, there are sea turtle reserves, crystal blue waters and quaint villages. Much further south, (and a 90-minute flight away) to the city of Salalah you’ll find lush green landscape, powdery white-sand beaches and the magical Frankincense trail, an ancient trading link to Zanzibar.
If all this were not enough, The Six Senses resort chain houses a property on the northern Musandam Peninsula in Oman. Zighy Bay Resort, (www.sixsenses.com), accessible via a two hour drive from Dubai (they’ll send a driver to pick up your clients at the airport) is an oasis in the middle of literally nowhere nestled between a dramatic mountain range and stunning coastline.
What’s the proper amount of time to spend in the country? Itineraries can range from 5-21 days. Most visitors plan to stop in both Dubai and Oman. So once your clients have finished marveling at the man made structures in Dubai, the natural beauty of Oman is a perfect next step. Hardan proclaims that “Dubai is a destination for shopping and Oman is for heritage, landscape and interaction with locals. Thus both destinations are a good match.”
Seeb International Airport serves many international airlines such as Lufthansa, British Airways, KLM, Swiss, Emirates, Thai Airways and more. The national carrier is Oman Air, which flies from Dubai, UK, Germany, France, Italy, India, Pakistan, Egypt, and Sri Lanka as well as linking to all major cities within Oman. For more information visit www.omantourism.gov.om.