x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Omanis are staying home thanks to tourists

Remote villages are discovering that tourism brings not just visitors and jobs - but returnees from the cities.

Mr al Ismaili's souvenir shop sells handicrafts to tourists.
Mr al Ismaili's souvenir shop sells handicrafts to tourists.

YANQUL, OMAN // When Oman began to open up to tourism in the early 1990s, officials worried that an influx of foreigners would threaten the traditions and culture of the country's rural areas. But nearly 20 years later, having tasted the financial benefits of tourism, the industry is welcomed throughout the country and has given rise to a generation of rural entrepreneurs running their own guesthouses, tour guide offices and souvenir shops along the routes frequented by tourists.

Isolated places such as the Wahiba Sands in the east of the country and Jabal Shams in the central west have become major beneficiaries of the tourist industry. Mohammedal al Toki, a 42-year-old businessman in Baiha village, converted his grandfather's land into what he called "a stop-over station" - a petrol station with a small supermarket and a restaurant - on the way to the scenic villages of Yanqul in northern Oman.

It is the only such facility for kilometres around. "And of course I have a toilet," chuckled Mr al Toki. "If you miss my services then you will need to drive for another 40km to get to the next one." Baiha is a made up of a small cluster of houses, just like the other seven villages in Yanqul. The region is stunningly beautiful with fresh spring water flowing from the mountains down to the wadis.

"All tourists pass here to go [to Yanqul]. They need petrol, water and something to eat. I supply them the essential services and I earn a good livelihood in return," he said. Saad al Hashili, 33, runs a tour guide business in Hassa village in the Sharqiyah region in the country's east, at the edge of the famous Wahiba Sands. He and his older brother are the guides, driving tourists to the golden dunes.

"As tour guides, we provide that local knowledge. We know every grain in the Wahiba Sands. Tourists want nationals like us to show them around," Mr al Hashili said. "And of course, we get paid for staying in our home village." Mr al Hashili quit his job in Muscat as an estate agent two years ago after his older brother convinced him to come back home to capitalise on the growing popularity of the Wahiba Sands.

"I used to get 750 rials [Dh7,154] a month," he said. "Most of it went on paying rent and instalments on my car. Now, my 50 per cent share of the business is double that. I also save from rent since I stay on the family farm." Another benefit for village residents is that more and more local businessmen are staying at home to look after their ageing parents, Gharib al Ismaili said. The 42-year-old runs a large souvenir shop at the Fallah village near Jabal Shams, the tallest peak in the Arabian Peninsula. There are various attractions within kilometres of his shop, including the Hoti Cave, which has a subterranean lake system that is home to a rare species of pale, bling fish. He sells local handicrafts to tourists ranging from incense burners to pottery to silver jewellery.

"I am the youngest of five children and all my brothers and sisters are in Muscat and Sohar, married with their own families. I came back here when my father had a fall on his farm to look after him because my old mother cannot do it alone," Mr al Ismaili said. He was working at the office of the governor of Sohar as a translator and left for home 18 months ago to start the now thriving business.

He also employs three locals, creating employment in a village of 220 people. With the success of his initial business, Mr al Ismaili plans to start a carpet-weaving business next to the souvenir shop, which would generate even more jobs for the area. "My shop is right on the junction between Jabal Shams and Hoti Cave. Tourists stop here to browse and they end up buying things. Locally made carpets will augment my income," Mr al Ismaili explained.

Government officials were initially worried that tourists would bring foreign cultural influences to Oman when it started to seriously promote tourism in the early 1990s. But now officials, although still cautious about mass tourism, admit to the economic benefits the relatively young industry brings to the country. "Our main concern then was that most villages would not welcome foreigners walking around in their streets, in areas which were closed to foreigners for centuries," said Alawi Mudrik, a supervisor at the rural conservation department in the regional municipality ministry

"But now villagers see the economic gains and they are quite open to the idea." In 2007, Oman granted selected countries, mostly in Europe and North America, as well as Japan, an automatic two-week tourist visa on arrival at the airport. Before that, a tourist needed to apply for a visiting visa from their own countries. Archie Fletcher, a British tourist, who was visiting Oman for the first time, said he was enjoying the unspoilt beauty spots in the rural areas and the friendliness of the villagers. "In the whole of Asia, apart from Thailand, people in the Omani villages are probably the most friendly. The mountains, the spring water, caves and even wildlife are amazing. It is a nature's paradise from a European's point of view," he said. According to official statistics, about 11 per cent more tourists visited Oman in 2009, an increase from about two million a year earlier. oshaibany@thenational.ae