Justin Francis, managing director of sustainable tourism site responsibletravel.com, travels to Oman in search of an authentic Arabian experience far removed from the high-rise tourism usually associated with the Gulf States
Sitting with a Bedouin lady at her home deep in the Omani desert I am struck with the thought that while the nomadic communities of Thesiger’s stories may no longer exist, it is wrong to say that nothing remains of this unique culture. Her home is a small dwelling, made from traditional reeds and rugs. Outside sand dunes stretch as far the eye can see and although no longer nomadic, this family still raise camels and race them; preserving threads of a richly woven yet rapidly disappearing desert culture.
These are the people I had in mind when I set up responsibletravel.com back in 2001, with the aim to make responsible tourism – which supports local communities and protects local environments – more easily accessible to the travelling public. Finding the people who love sharing where they are, but who also want to keep their places special, has been a key part of the website’s journey. Celebrating these companies, and individuals, also drove me to set up the World Responsible Tourism Awards, which will celebrate its 11th year this November.
“The family welcome visitors into their home free of charge; it is an unmistakable characteristic of Bedouin hospitality”
Back in the Bedouin home, I look through the selection of hand-made crafts set out on the rug-covered floor. No imported plastic fridge magnets or bulk-bought fakeries, these are pieces of art hewn from skills passed down from generation to generation. The family welcome visitors into their home free of charge; it is an unmistakable characteristic of Bedouin hospitality, a traditional value still very much alive in this corner of Oman. They are, in their words, “doing it for Oman, not for their house”, out of love for, and to preserve, their traditional culture and way of life. The crafts bring in income and the opportunity to share stories about their life in the desert, while the visit gives me the chance to learn about modern Bedouin life, which helps to keep this corner of its fading culture shining bright.
My most memorable travel experiences are like this: rooted in authenticity, experiencing the pace of life as local people do, rather than just passing through. It was this search for the genuine that led me to the Bedouin in the Sharqiyah Sands and also took me an hour and a half out of Muscat to neighbouring Nizwa in time for its Friday cattle market. It’s one of the golden rules for travel: if you want authentic experience, head for a market.
Wandering Nizwa’s winding old streets I have the opportunity to glimpse the Oman of years past. The oldest city in the country, it used to be a centre for trade, religion, education and art. While other more modern endeavours are now flourishing, the ancient livestock market and the myriad of intertwining souks that surround it keep the city’s trade roots alive. White-clothed men parade their cows and goats around to the highest bidder, as they have for centuries. Tourists are welcome, but the vibrant, often loud and dramatic atmosphere is not toned down for their benefit or to appease foreign sensitivities. It is an unadulterated taste of what the market experience is like for local people, and a breath of fresh air when compared the souks in more tourist-centred cities such as Marrakech, where it can sometimes feel like visitors are a mere commercial commodity.
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This openness and a desire to share the real Oman with visitors was a recurring theme throughout my week. In Muscat’s awe-inspiring Sultan Qaboos Grand Mosque lay an immense single Persian rug, which took 27 months to make and weighs a staggering 21 tonnes, atop which sat a Muslim cleric who was there simply to speak openly to anyone who wants to learn more the Islamic faith. It makes my visit much more than just a wander round an architecturally and aesthetically beautiful building. Instead it offers me an insight into the customs and values that underpin every experience and every person I have met in this country.
Oman is a remarkable place, and although its pristine coastline and powdery beaches are garnering interest from the giants of international tourism, for me it is the areas inland which make this country special; the small-scale tourism businesses and local people, who want to promote and protect their landscapes and heritage and which give us a safe, welcoming and beguiling glimpse into the authentic Arabia.
Take a tailor-made tour of Oman
Follow in the footsteps of the writer on this responsible travel tour across the north of Oman from Muscat to Sur, the Wahiba Sands to Nizwa. Experience dry deserts, dunes, luscious green oases, local fishing villages, Bedouin camps and Omani souks along the way.
From £1760 (8 days) including UK flights
Justin Francis was a guest of the Sultanate of Oman Ministry of Tourism, headline sponsor of the 2014 World Responsible Tourism Awards.