With waterfalls, wildlife and temperatures as low as 18C, the wadis of southern Oman are an appealing destination for tourists looking to escape the summer heat. But when they get there, drivers from the Emirates are not treating the lush, green land with the respect it deserves, complain the local authorities.
They accuse young drivers, especially, of cutting across the soft ground in their four-by-fours, pulling stunts that scar the vulnerable grassland during the area's khareef, or monsoon, season. "These youth show an uncivilised attitude," said Ahmed Salem, the operations officer at the Governorate of Dhofar police command. He said drivers in SUVs with blacked-out windows regularly spoilt the greenery with stunts.
"They do things with the cars that are unacceptable. It's a widespread phenomenon. They should respect the laws of the country they go in." Now Oman is launching a campaign to encourage tourists to respect the environment. In addition to installing fencing around abused areas such as the famous Wadi Dharbat, near the "garden city" of Salalah, the government is preparing a media campaign within the country to spread awareness about tourism in the remaining summer months, according to a tourism ministry official who asked not to be named.
Efforts outside Oman are limited, he said, because tourism is mostly concentrated into two months in the khareef season and "we don't want to push it and turn off visitors". Visitors from abroad already receive brochures and leaflets at airports and border crossings informing them of the area's historic green landscapes, on which the grass can grow more than a metre high during the June to September monsoons.
A spokesman at Salalah municipality, Salem Ahmed, said the fragile natural area needed to be protected from such vandalism. "These drivers, most of them from out of the sultanate, most of them from the UAE, they go over it, doing stunts," he said. "No tradition or religion accepts this." Salalah is the southernmost city in Oman and the second-largest in the country with a population of about 180,000 people.
The wadi sits about 38 kilometres from the city, interrupted by a river that meets the sea at Khor Rawri. After heavy summer rains, an impressive waterfall emerges at the densely forested southern end. Nomads camp on the valley floor while their camels graze on the lush pastures. It is also a wildlife paradise, with white storks often spotted feeding among the grazing camels. The local frankincense tree has been traded around the world for 8,000 years and the area is protected under Unesco, the UN educational, scientific and cultural organisation.
Ali Abu Bakr, a tour guide born in Salalah, called the many drivers with UAE plates a "blight" during the khareef season. "These drivers do not take into account the dangerous driving conditions here," he said. "They don't obey the speed limits and when the weather and visibility is bad, even then, we should all be driving much slower than the speed limits." Locals depend on tourism, he said, and people who visit need to respect a landscape steeped in history. He said drivers from the UAE are among the main offenders in damaging the green space.
"It's such a shame that the fences have had to be built now," he said. "It was all open before and was so natural, but the municipality had to make sure that no more damage was done. "There are places now where the grass just doesn't grow any more as the drivers were driving round and round in circles on it." * The National