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Tuesday, 09 December, 2014, 10 : 00 AM [IST]

International Focus: Oman: Unexplored Paradise

Where majestic mountain ranges tower over teeming coral reefs, and red desert sands mysteriously shift as they whisper tales of a bygone era, the Sultanate of Oman is the destination where age-old traditions merge seamlessly with modern five-star service. TravelBiz Monitor explores this well-kept secret of the Middle East
wadi_bani_awf.jpgIt is difficult to fathom what to expect when presented with an opportunity to visit the Sultanate of Oman. The immediate thoughts bring to the mind a desert, an oasis, date palms, dry hot weather, and camels or maybe the more developed Middle East with high rises, malls, super cars and sprawling hotels. The Sultanate is almost a mystery, a secret well preserved for so many years that has lately started to catch the roving eye of the well-travelled, hungry for a new quest. It is only after arriving at Oman and taking in all that one sees, can a person actually describe its raw and untouched beauty.  

Step into Muscat, the capital city of Oman, and you’d feel you have stepped into an Arabian Nights setting in a modern context – traditional houses, ancient souqs, winding roads and low-lying white buildings. Here, modernity walks hand in hand with tradition, lending a unique idiom and flavour to the city. The areas are divided by low, craggy hills and each part has its own distinctive character. The Omanis are known for their hospitality – wherever you go, a warm, friendly smile welcomes you. In Muscat, you can feel that hospitality and friendliness everywhere.

travel_trade_and_media_during_the_fam.jpgSignificant reminders of the city’s past remain, however. These include, most notably, the engaging port district of Muttrah and the nearby quarter of Old Muscat, spread out along a salty seafront lined with old Portuguese forts, colourful mosques, and assorted traditional Arabian buildings (many now converted into small-scale museums). These are the places where you’ll get the strongest sense of Muscat’s sometimes elusive appeal, with its beguiling atmosphere of old-time, small-town Arabian somnolence, quite different from the somewhat faceless modern suburbs to the West.

Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque  
Built to mark the 30th anniversary of Sultan Qaboos’ ascension to the throne, the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque is a modern Islamic architectural delight. Made of 300,000 tonnes of Indian sandstone, the Mosque can accommodate more than 20,000 worshippers. Magnificent from the outside, the prayer hall is famous for the world’s second largest single piece of carpet and a dazzling chandelier. For a visit to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque, women are required to cover their head with a scarf and both men and women should refrain from wearing shorts, beachwear or sleeveless outfits as they are to be fully covered.

nizwa.jpgMuttrah Souq
One of the oldest marketplaces in the Arab world, Muttrah is a shopaholic’s delight. In the crowded lanes and by lanes, you can find everything listed on your must-buy list. From household goods, shoes and ready-made garments, to frankincense, perfume oils, fresh jasmine and spices, it is all here. You can stray into the side lanes and pick Omani embroidered caps, traditional costumes and headscarves.

Royal Opera House
Oman’s premier venue for musical arts and culture, the Royal Opera House complex consists of a concert theatre, auditorium, landscaped gardens, and cultural market with retail, luxury restaurants and an art centre for musical, theatrical and operatic productions. It is the first Opera House in the world equipped with Radio Marconi’s multimedia interactive display seatback system, Mode23.

lighthouse_at_sur.jpgWadi Bashing
Wadis (valleys and river beds) dot the topography of Oman. Characterised by a rich variety, diversity, and a wealth of natural attractions, these wadis form an integral part of the Sultanate’s environmental system and have been providing life for thousands of years. The route through Wadi Bani Awf goes through beautiful scenery and connects all the way to Bilad Sayat in Al Dakhiliya region by crossing the Hajar Mountains and offers some of the best off-road driving experience. En route to Jabal Akhdar or the Green Mountain through the wadi lies the village of Al Hamra, which is set afoot the Hajar Mountains. It is a well-preserved row of two-to-three storeyed mud brick houses providing a glimpse into the change in lifestyles in the past three decades. Higher up, Jabal Akhdar, the dramatic gorge, provides awe-inspiring views of the Hajar Mountains.  

For the History Buff
About 140 kms from Muscat, Nizwa, the ancient capital of Oman and one of the oldest cities of the Sultanate, lives the ancient and the modern life with enviable ease. The Nizwa Fort is an amazing example of old Omani architecture that provides an illustration of the way Omani people used to live in ancient times. Today, it is Oman’s most visited national monument. One cannot miss the Falaj Daris, the largest falaj in Oman, and a World Heritage Site.

The expansive Nizwa Souk (marketplace) showcases a wonderful array of handicrafts - coffee pots, swords, leather goods, silverware, antiques, and household utensils. The souq is a shopper’s delight, especially for silver jewellery, which is considered the best in the country.

turtle_watching_at_ras_al_jinz.jpgMagical Dunes
Sharqiyah Sands, Oman’s longitudinal dunes, sprawl 200-km-long and 100-km-wide. Running South from the Eastern Hajars to the Arabian Sea, the rippling dunes are mighty, some even rising 100-150 mts high. Sharqiyah Sands gained ecological/scientific importance after a 1986 Royal Geographical Society expedition that documented the diversity of the terrain, its flora and fauna. The region attracts travellers looking for a date with the dunes.  

Oman’s coastline stretches for a distance of 3,165 kms, including beaches overlooking the Sea of Oman, the Arabian Sea, and the Strait of Hormuz in the North. The ports of Oman have been a destination for sea-faring traders since the dawn of time. Oman offers some of the cleanest, most stunning beaches a visitor could hope to see.

Manoj-Dass,-Tour-Oman.jpgAttractions on the Eastern coast feature an interesting blend of the historical and the natural, including the old fort of Quriyat and the ruined city of Qalhat, along with Wadi Shab and Wadi Tiwi, two of Oman’s most scenic wadis. The off-road drive up across the top of the Eastern Hajar to Ibra via the Bronze Age tombs of Jaylah is another highlight. Past here lies Sur, the historic centre of Oman’s famous ship-building industry, and still one of the prettiest towns in the South, and the turtle beach at Ras al Jinz.

One cannot have enough of the dunes and the wadis, the pristine blue sea and untouched beaches. As the journey comes to an end, a look at the many fading turrets and domes against the skyline affirm that Oman is truly, as they say, a secret that has to be discovered.

manoj_dass.jpgMANOJ DASS, Head, Tour Oman
For Oman, we found India a great potential source market, mainly due to the common aspects in culture between the nations. Also, access from India to Oman is easy with an average flying duration of three hours. Oman has choices of products that suit the Indian market. Destinations such as Muscat, Nizwa, Jabel Shams, Jabel Akhdar, Sur, Wahiba Sands, Wadi Shab, Ras al Hadd, Wadi Bani Khalid, etc., are very interesting for Indian tourists. Apart from our regular sales visits, trade exhibition participation, and agent FAM trips, we are looking at various B2B activities that can increase the business volume from India. Our representative office in India, Sand Destinations are active in promoting the destination to the Indian travel trade. We have plans of introducing a few more attractive packages for the Indian market. We are looking at tapping MICE, FIT, GIT, destination wedding groups, Film-induced Tourism, and stopover passengers from India to Europe. We also notice tremendous opportunity in hosting mega events in the Sultanate of Oman. The growth of Indian traveller numbers to Oman is quite visible, and there is a lot of interest from tourist groups to explore this new, untapped destination. Oman suits adventure lovers perfectly with activities like trekking, biking, via ferrata, cliff diving, water sports, camping, mountain safaris, desert safaris, and camel safaris. There is huge clientele in India looking for destinations offering such activities, and Oman suits that perfectly.

issa_sultan_al_ismaili.jpgISSA SULTAN AL ISMAILI
Executive Director, Oman World Tourism

The potential for Oman is huge in India. Oman Tourism established an office in India five years ago, and last year I attended the first roadshow organised by them and we covered four cities. That’s when I saw the potential of the Indian market. Oman is within three hours of flying time from all major cities of India. The flight connectivity and timings are perfect for extended weekend trips and combined holiday-makers. Nonetheless, ties between India and Oman are very strong on all fronts, which open opportunities for the MICE segment and personal events such as weddings, and other occasions such as extended family travels. We are looking at tapping extended weekend groups, soft adventures, small leisure, and corporate groups. Oman is best experienced in niche groups. It has the quality and most importantly, offers personalised attention where almost every guest will leave Oman with an experience that will stay with them forever. This is the segment that we are looking at promoting. The Indian market is huge, and we plan to tap it by investing in appointing a representative with clear objectives and targets of boutique-style travel agents and tour operators, as that will meet well with our strengths in Oman. Currently, we cater to high-end small groups. The response has always been positive and today we receive almost daily inquiries, though the challenges are to identify the right portfolio that we would like to work with in the Indian market.

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