There’s mile upon mile of beautiful sandy beach in Oman. Yet the coast seems to be deserted for the most part of the day, save for the lone swimmer, a few joggers and couples staying in the international hotels taking a walk. So if you want to get away from everything, this is the place to head. And the sea is so clean to swim in.
But if the beach near my hotel in Qurum, Muscat, is anything to go by the sands come alive in the late afternoon. Out of what seems like no-where, the locals appear in their droves. Wearing replica football kits of the main European teams, they arrive for some serious sporting action. The beaches become alive with back-to-back mass games of football. And the players have thought of everything – they bring coloured vest tops so the two sides won’t get confused and also mini goal nets. They are a friendly bunch and passers-by are invited to join in.
The large scale games of football are a sight to be seen and must involve literally hundreds of Omanis. Many of the beachfront cafes don’t open until late afternoon to cater for the locals, making it clear who the businesses see as their main target market. Anywhere else in the world and the shacks would open in the morning to cater for Europeans.
It all goes to show that tourism is very much in its infancy in Oman. I’m told that the tourism ministry has been going only three years in fact. Although tourists have been coming for longer than that.
But the word I can’t get off with Oman is “potential”. It has the infrastructure in the form of high class hotels and top resorts, yet I’m here in what is deemed the “high” season and the place doesn’t seem overrun.
There is already a lot on offer for the tourist. For example, I joined a half-day trip around Muscat and saw the Sultan’s wonderful palace which is covered in gold. We visited the amazing souk and fish market in Muttrah, near Muscat, where the fish were so fresh they were almost jumping off the counters.
But I think the country as a whole could make more of its history. It has quite a story to tell. The forts above the harbour in Muscat, for example, date from when the Portuguese held sway in the 1500s. They built their principal Naval base in the town. Later when the Portuguese were ousted with the help of the British (who were to have great influence in the 1800s), they were strengthened. Many are still used today to defend the Omani coast.
I also took a trip to Nizwa in the interior, about 100 miles from Muscat. To get to this area, you take the motorway through vast arid desert expanses. Modern towns have sprung up but there are still many surviving villages built on ancient foundations.
In the interior you also find forts, dating from the time when Muscat and Oman were great rivals. Nizwa fort, originating from the 1600s, took 12 years to build. It has a massive circular tower, sunk 30 metres deep to withstand vibrations; it offers a great overview of Nizwa and its souk.
These historic monuments have been lovingly restored and are in a good condition for their age.
What’s missing is interpretation; the audio guides that you see elsewhere in the world are not there and the signage is very basic (often limited to room names e.g. kitchen). I also didn’t really see any shops where you could buy a guidebook or postcards.
Oman’s got its history, now it just needs to be bold and tell the world all about it. It has beautiful scenery and friendly people, this place will hit new heights when it opens itself up to interpretation. It has potential.