Heritage tourism: the case of Oman

Ms Beatrice Bizzaro, a graduate of Arabic language studies and literature at the Ca’ Foscari University in Venice (Italy), is a qualified tour guide and travel organiser. Beatrice has spent an extended period of time in the Middle East, having worked in Oman for 8 years, and is now based in Doha, Qatar.

Introduction

Tourism has grown significantly over the last few decades and forecasts predict an even faster rate of growth in the near future. In the most general sense, the term tourism includes any activity linked to the temporary short-term movement of people to destinations outside the places where they normally live and work, and their activities during the stay at these destinations (The Tourism Society 1979).

The term heritage tourism indicates travelling to experience places, artefacts, and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present including cultural, historic and natural resources (National Trust for Historic Preservation). Heritage tourism is also an economic activity, predicated on the use of inherited environmental and socio-cultural assets to attract visitors (Fyall & Garrod 1998). This activity is very important because, in the case of domestic tourism, it stimulates pride in one’s national history. International tourism by extension stimulates respect and comprehension of other cultures promoting peace and understanding.

This interview focusses on Oman’s heritage tourism, and finds it is a powerful tool of economic development that achieves economic and social growth.

1 When did your experience in the Middle East start?

I have always been interested in the Arab world and, for this reason, I decided to study Arabic language and literature. During my academic studies, I often travelled to Middle Eastern countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

2 When did you decide to move to Oman? Why Oman?

At the end of a course on tourism in Rome in 2011, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop organised by the Oman Ministry of Tourism. I met a few managers of tour operators based in Oman and I received an offer from one of them. During this workshop I discovered where the Sultanate of Oman was geographically located and, since I had never been there, I decided to start a new experience. Oman became my home for the past 8 years.

3 Can you briefly describe Oman and your working role?

The Sultanate of Oman has 4.5 million inhabitants in 309,500 km­2 I have worked for several local and non-local tour operators, as a tour guide and tour coordinator. Basically, my role was organising trips for tourists, mostly Italians, and then accompanying them around the Sultanate.

This work has allowed me to be in close contact with the locals and to get to know the country in all its splendour, because yes, Oman is indeed a country where the famous book, “One Thousand and One Nights” could be set.

4 When did tourism start developing in Oman and what kind of strategies have been adopted?

Since 1975, the Omani Government has developed five-year tourism projects. In each five-year plan, important goals have been achieved. For example, in the first 10 years the funds were fundamentally allocated to organise the first structures and infrastructures but the importance of tourism was not yet recognised as an important aspect of the country’s economy. In the 1990s, great progress was made and, in fact, a general tourism directorate was created, as well as rules for tourists. Tourist visas were established and the first real tourism development plan in the country began.

5 When exactly did Omani tourism flourish? Have there ever been periods of crisis in this sector and why?

The Ministry of Tourism was established in 2004 and the real tourist boom began around 2010. Tourism reached its peak and became an important economic sector for the country in 2013. Unfortunately, the subsequent repeated terror attacks in Europe negatively impacted this sector leading to a substantial decrease in European tourists to the Middle East countries and in the Arabian Gulf region between 2014-2016.

6 What happened after this period of crisis and how did the Ministry of Tourism strategically react to revitalise the tourist sector?

Fortunately, from the end of 2016 European tourists started visiting the areas again and the sector gradually recovered. This is the reason why, since the beginning of 2017, the Omani Ministry of Tourism started investing in the creation of new structures. For example, major foreign developments have invested in hotels and resorts, and the Ministry of Tourism has always attended the various tourism fairs.

Moreover, the Minister has officially focused all his projects on promoting cultural traditions and nature.

7 What kind of impact did these strategies have on this sector? What kind of difficulties are still present in this sector based on your experience?

Clearly, all these projects created new jobs for foreigners but, above all, for locals. In fact, the project established by the Government called “Omanisation” has intensified, meaning that companies, including those in the tourism sector, are obliged to have at least 30% Omani workers among their employees.

Although the tourism sector is seen as one of the most important economic sectors in the country and, according to the Minister of Tourism, in 2019 tourism contributed 2.9 per cent to the country’s GDP, it remains a sector with great difficulties. For example, salaries are very low (average of 400 OMR per month, equal to about 932 euro/1,035 US dollars) and, there is a lack of academic training for people who wish to pursue a career in tourism.

8 What are the most preferred destinations which tourists want to visit and what do they experience in terms of heritage? Is Muscat, the capital, the real tourist attraction?

Visiting Muscat today means driving through a modern city, but without the presence of the big skyscrapers like in Dubai, Abu Dhabi or Doha. Most of the buildings are two-storey villas or buildings that reach a maximum of six floors. It must be stressed that Muscat has only a few heritage sites and the old city has been completely rebuilt.

Despite that, in Muscat tourists experience well preserved historical sites such as the forts which date back to the time of the Portuguese protectorate (1507-1650) together with the suq of Muttrah (the traditional market), which is said to be one of the oldest in the Middle East. Whereas, Al Alam Palace, the Sultan’s Palace, dates back only to 1973.

To be totally surrounded by Omani culture, tourists have to leave the capital and visit the city of Nizwa and the surrounding area which includes the highest mountains in Oman (Jebel Shams and Jebel Akhdar) and a lot of traditional villages. Nizwa is located in the Dakhiliya region and it is the biggest city, as well as the old capital of Oman when the Portuguese were sent away from the country (around 1640-1650).

Generally speaking, the most interesting cultural sites and major tourist attractions of Oman are located in the Dakhiliya region, and some of these places are so important that they are on the UNESCO list, such as:

  • The prehistoric tombs of Bat, Al-Khutm and Al-Ayn dating back to 3500 BC.
  • The traditional irrigation system (Falaj). The origins of this system of irrigation may date back to AD 500, but archaeological evidence suggests that irrigation systems existed in this extremely arid area as early as 2500 BC.
  • The fort and settlement of Bahla, which flourished under the Banu Nabhan tribe the 12th and 15th centuries AD.
  • The ancient city of Qalhat, located on the eastern coast of the Sultanate of Oman and approximately 20 km north of the city of Sur.

I also add other places which, although not on the UNESCO list, are equally important from a cultural and tourist viewpoint:

  • The fort of Nizwa and the castle of Jibreen.
  • The villages of Al Hamra and Misfah Al Abriyeen.
  • The archaeological site of Salut.
  • Jebel Shams and Jebel Akhdar.

In the south of Oman, many cultural sites are concentrated in the vicinity of the city of Salalah. The Government has decided to develop important architectural projects in Salalah in order to renovate the old city landscape, for example by demolishing the old suq to build a new one with more facilities. However, in nearby areas the Ministry of Tourism promoted several archaeological campaigns and the restoration of several sites connected to the ancient incense trade route. These archaeological sites, which have become tourist attractions, are included on the UNESCO list:

  • The frankincense trees of Wadi Dawkah.
  • The remains of the caravan oasis of Shisr/Wubar.
  • The city of Al Balid and the Museum of Frankincense.
  • The city of Khor Rori (or also called Sumhuram).

9 Are there particular natural tourist attractions?

Yes, in addition to the historical archaeological sites, there are several natural sites important for the Omanis and that have recently become important tourist destinations. Among these, are the wadi (that is, the riverbeds important in the pluvial plains) like Wadi Shab, Wadi Tiwi, Wadi Arbayeen, Wadi Bani Awf and Wadi Shuwaymiah.

The wadis are a precious resource for the Omanis, are sources of fresh water, and are home to several villages and farmland. During certain festivities, they are populated by locals seeking refreshment in their waters while preparing delicious barbecues, which means tourists can be totally immersed into real Omani life.

Given the warm climate, the mountains represent an ideal retreat for tourists. Jebel Shams and Jebel Akhdar are the two highest peaks and the most famous places in Oman. Conversely, the hottest places, the Wahiba Sands desert and the Rub Al Khali desert represent other important tourist attractions.

Last but not least, I’d like to mention the important natural reserve of Ras al Jinz where Cheloniamydas turtles (commonly known as green sea turtles) lay their eggs.

10 Are there museums in Oman?

Although very few, there are well organised museums such as the new National Museum in Muscat which collects both archaeological and modern local artefacts. Several small museums are scattered in the capital which focus on the local history and culture such as the Bait al Zubair, which is very popular among tourists as it houses a private collection of traditional clothes and everyday objects.

The museums located in the south of Oman are dedicated to incense and its trade in the past.

11 Do you have any interesting personal experiences to share since you have spent such a long time in Oman?

As a tour guide and tour organiser I obviously had the opportunity to visit all these aforementioned places but also many others that are less known.

The experience that most marked my life was a working relationship and a good friendship with an Omani guy, from the village of Misfah al Abriyeen located in the Hajar mountains close to the city of Nizwa. This local man, together with his cousins, had a wonderful idea which involved the refurbishment of some of the old family houses in order to turn them into guest houses. Thanks to their project, tourists can experience sleeping arrangements according to the Omani tradition, on mattresses placed on the ground, eat typical dishes cooked by the women of the village, and take relaxing walks among the palm trees to discover more local traditions.

12 Are the locals more aware of the tourist potential of Oman?

The Omanis are tied in a special way to their traditions and their culture. Many young Omanis have recently embarked on a career in tourism, as guides, drivers or in the hotel industry and it is incredible to see how these people keep us talking about their traditions, showing the beauty of their country to tourists. After all, hospitality is one of the strong points of this population.

There is no doubt the locals are aware of the potential of their country and it is clear that they are eager to make it known and the example of Mr Abdullah is tangible proof of how the Omanis are totally bound up with their territory and traditions.

If on the one hand, Omani cultural and natural heritage represent a great source of economic income, on the other hand it must be stressed that they also represent a precious asset to be preserved and protected.

13 What are the targets achieved and what objectives should be achieved in the coming years?

I believe that since the beginning, the main target for the Government was making Oman known as an enchanting tourist destination. In fact, the official Government website states:

Oman has an ancient heritage as its archaeological sites are still present today. This rich heritage reflects the strong bond that connects Omanis to their land and community. […] Oman’s culture is rich of customs, traditions, and its suqs are bustling with traditional arts.”

Strategically, the government has invested and still is investing in the needs of all types of tourists, and, at the same time, it is trying to get involved the local population in many and different projects. For example, women’s associations have been created to promote local traditions, awards have been set up for the guides who distinguish themselves in the promotion of the country. Yet, many new projects are aimed to improve hotel facilities to increase the tourism in the country.

The Ministry of Tourism is actively involved in restoration and maintenance of archaeological sites. In fact, the oldest forts are periodically closed for maintenance and targeted archaeological investigations are very often carried out at several archaeological sites.

The Ministry of Tourism is focusing particularly on Muscat, the capital. In many workshops with the participation of tour operators and hotel chains, the authorities try to understand what can be done to make tourists stay in the city for more than a couple of nights.

The capital seems to offer very little to tourists because it is a modern city with very few historical preserved places.

Other projects seem to focus on the recovery of many ancient villages whose abandoned houses are built with bricks of mud and straw. Potentially, these villages with their particular structures may represent a real tourist attraction.

The Ministry of Tourism together with the Government will continue to fund special projects to preserve and promote the Omani culture in all its forms and it seems they are always open to new ideas.

Conclusion

The Heritage Call warmly thanks the specialist Ms Beatrice Bizzaro for her cooperation and for this valuable information.

The direct experience of our specialist highlights that since 1975 the Omani Government has been thinking strategically of how to increase tourism through its own cultural and natural heritage. It emerges that Omani heritage is an important source for sustaining and promoting cultural diversity. Tourists can experience Oman’s places, cultural institutions and take part in specific and typical socio-cultural events. These strategies help tourists appreciate the past and present Omani culture including the appreciation of the unique natural resources of the country.

The heritage sector represents an important and powerful resource which favours the creation of jobs for locals and non-locals alike. For example, “Omanisation” helped to engage locals in the tourist sector, developing the cooperation of visitors and locals. The tourist sector is not static so strategic plans in Oman are still ongoing in order to allow future visitors to create their own enjoyable experiences.

References

Fyall, A. and Garrod, B. (1998). Heritage tourism: at what price? Managing Leisure, 3, 213-228.

Poria, Y. Butler, R. and Airey, D. (2003). The core of heritage tourism. Annals of Tourism Research, 30(1), 238-254.

The Tourism Society (1979). Handbook and Members List. The Tourism Society.

Middleton, T.C. (2001). Marketing in Travel and Tourism. 3rd ed. Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Websites

https://savingplaces.org/

www.omanportal.gov.om

https://omantourism.gov.om/wps/portal/mot/tourism/oman/home

https://whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/om

http://www2.unwto.org/

Interview directed by Barbara Morda

Beatrice’s feedback on The Heritage Call: Thanks to The Heritage Call platform I had a great opportunity to publicly share my experience in Oman talking about the development of strategic plans for heritage tourism. Working with Dr Barbara Morda was a very stimulating experience and I warmly invite specialists to cooperate with her initiative and share your experiences.

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