Responsible tourism in Oman

One issue that Oman doesn’t have is instability. With conflict and strife hitting many of the Middle Eastern countries, Oman thrives in peacetime. As a relatively new country to tourism it is learning and developing slowly, avoiding most of the trappings of mass tourism for now. However, with tourism being the main industry to replace oil, there is pressure for it to grow, and with the number of tourists in the world growing all the time, there is also pressure for them to open up more and more doors. Continuing to do so responsibly, sustaining a local economy and protecting its natural heritage, from marine to mangrove, wadis to wilderness, will be a challenge, but not an insurmountable one.

People & Culture in Oman

Respecting the written & unwritten rules

Oman is touted as being a very liberal country, compared with some of its neighbours. And Oman does have a very cosmopolitan vibe, leading visitors into a false sense of the culture being much more Western, as there are a lot of Western immigrants around, especially in Muscat. But in general, they will know how to behave, and how to respect local traditions. However, in the interior of the country, in particular, people do have very strict codes of conduct, and some tourists still remain blind to this. Women dressing inappropriately is the biggest faux pas. If you cover up properly (including shoulders, neckline and the whole of your arms and legs) and make sure nothing is too tight, you will be treated very differently by local people. Women also need a scarf to cover their heads in mosques. They aren’t provided, but at the Grand Mosque there are lovely women who will show you how to wrap it properly.

Having said all that, it is worth noting that women’s rights are stronger in Oman than in neighbouring countries. There are a few women at senior levels of government, there is a high employment rate of women and since 2010 married women can have passports without the consent of their husbands and marry without the consent of their parents. Although these may seem basic, it is put into perspective by pointing out that women have only had the right to vote in Oman since 1994, and this was pioneering, as it was the first Arab country to grant this right. For more information on women’s rights in Oman, see the UNHCR website.

The Omanis are extremely friendly and never criticise or judge. In fact, an Omani can be taken to court for insulting someone. It just isn’t done, and with teasing or wind-ups being part of many European cultures, you will understand why that ‘only joking, mate’ slap on the back attitude doesn’t work here. Rude hand gestures are also illegal, so don’t let road rage get you into trouble. Omanis are very laid back, however, and the last thing they want to do is offend. The most respected person is, of course, the Sultan, whom Omanis feel has done nothing but good for the country, especially when it comes to healthcare and education. So, speaking badly of the Sultan is never done.

Showing intimacy in public is taboo, particularly outside Muscat and Salalah, where even smiling at a member of the opposite sex can be frowned upon. People like to shake hands as a greeting, but never shake hands with someone of the opposite sex unless they offer first. What Omanis do often offer is an invitation into their home, as they love welcoming people in. Bringing a small gift such as dates or honey is a tradition when you are invited, and use only the right hand for accepting and eating food. Always take your shoes off, but avoid showing the soles of your feet, which implies that you think the other person is ‘dirt’. Keep your feet flat on the ground and don’t cross your legs.
Liz Pepperell, Managing Director of our supplier Odyssey World:
“Dress respectfully when visiting local villages, covering elbows and knees, and do not photograph people, particularly women, without permission. You may see them washing their clothes in the river, but please don’t photograph them without their permission. Tourists should avoid going out of the hotel in sleeveless tops and shorts, to show respect to their hosts. During Ramadan it is a courtesy not to sit and eat in front of any local people.”
Justin Francis, Managing Director at Responsible Travel shares his travel advice after a recent trip to Oman: “In order to really experience Oman we have to understand the cultural and social values which drive the lives of the people we meet. A visit to the Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque in Muscat was much more than simply a glimpse into a beautiful building. Inside I was greeted by clerics happy to answer questions about the Islamic faith, to discuss ideas and explain their beliefs. It offered an interesting opportunity to understand more fully the customs and cultures which traveling into the heart of Oman gives you the chance to experience.”

Wildlife & environment in Oman

Water in the desert

When you look at the gleaming green golf courses and manicured hotel gardens in Oman, you might be forgiven for forgetting that Oman is mostly desert. However, with one of the fastest growing populations in the world, water scarcity is always a scary monster lurking in the corner here. And Oman is a very dry corner. The biggest user of water in Oman is agriculture and, according to the UN, over 80 percent of agricultural land is irrigated with groundwater. So when they ask you to watch your water usage in hotels, they mean it. You may not be able to persuade them to switch off the sprinklers, but you can do your bit in your room.

Many people drink bottled water in Oman, even though a 2017 UN report declared that the tap water here is among the world’s best, with 97 percent of it free from contamination. In addition, the recycling of plastic seems to be not only a green issue, but a very grey area. So if you must buy water, buy the biggest size of bottle you can, therefore minimising the amount of plastic you are disposing of. One quirky feature is that it is illegal to drive a dirty car in Oman, so that’s a lot of car washing in a dusty, sandy country, too.

Oman also wetlands, and joined the Ramsar Convention of Wetlands in 2013 with Qurm Nature Reserve designated as its first Ramsar site. However, there is concern that areas attracting important birdlife are now being earmarked for marinas and hotel developments, particularly in the south. Hopefully, the Convention will ensure that wildlife and wilderness is protected forever.
What you can do
As well as monitoring your water usage carefully, check out a wetland that is really off the tourist trail, despite being in Muscat. Al Ansab is at a sewage treatment site, run by Haya Water, and it is a gem of a place known for western marsh harriers, grebes, sandpipers and so many more. You need to make an appointment to visit it, with details on their wetland website. The Salalah lagoons are also worth visiting. And of course, make sure you bring a refillable water bottle with you or hydration backpack.

Oman responsible tourism tips

Oman has its fair share of all inclusive resorts and gated luxury. Get out and experience the real Oman and its people. The Bedouin, the souk traders, the fishermen. Go diving with local experts. Eat real food in real restaurants. Alcohol is permitted in hotels and some restaurants with licenses to sell it, but you have to be over 21 to drink in Oman. Drinking alcohol outside of these private establishments is prohibited, although it does still happen in remote places if you bring your own. During Ramadan, there is no drinking in public at all. It might come as a shock to some people when they visit animal auctions that wild animals are being sold. There is a different culture regarding animals in Oman, and you won’t get a whiff of animal rights here. Animals are for hunting or killing, and the end result is seen in the markets and animal auctions. Good local expert guides are still thin on the ground in Oman. There are plenty of driver guides, but not ones who are really knowledgeable about the natural and cultural wonders of the country. This is mainly due to a lack of training within the country but as tourism grows so, hopefully, will the number of well qualified guides. You will be in wonderful wilderness in Oman, so obviously sticking to a rigid ‘Leave no trace’ policy applies. Take everything away with you. Many people enjoy the turtle watching when in Oman. The green and hawksbill turtles are on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species endangered list, and yet hundreds of them come back year after year to lay their eggs on the beaches of Ras al Hadd, Ras Al Jinz and Masirah Island. There are certain rules to stick to when viewing these precious creatures. Try to go with an expert wildlife guide, do not drive on beaches where they are known to nest, don’t use flash photography or bright torches when viewing them, and don't get any closer than 10m to 15m to any turtle. And don’t touch them of course.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Marc Veraart] [Omani men chatting: Oman Ministry of Tourism] [Wetland bird: lacopo.lea]