Responsible tourism in Oman

Travel right 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. 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

Respecting the written and unwritten rules

Oman is marketed 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 expats around. Especially in Muscat although, in general, expats 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, the whole arm and your legs, and also make sure nothing is too tight or transparent, you will be treated very differently by local people too. Also women need a scarf to cover the head in mosques. Scarves 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, 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 UN 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. And rude hand gestures are also illegal by the way, 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, who has done nothing but good for the country, especially when it comes to healthcare and education. So, criticising the Sultan is never done.

Showing intimacy in public is not done either, in particular, outside Muscat and Salalah. 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 and bringing a small gift such as dates or honey is a tradition when you are invited. 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’.

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 outdoors, but please don’t photograph them without their permission. Tourists should avoid going out of the hotel in sleeveless tops & shorts, to show respect to their hosts. During Ramadan it is a courtesy not to drink or eat in front of any local people."

Justin Francis, Managing Director, 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 travelling into the heart of Oman gives you the chance to experience."

Wildlife & environment

water in the desert

One of the fastest growing populations in the world, water scarcity is always a scary monster lurking in the corner. And Oman is a considerable dry corner. The biggest user of water in Oman is agriculture and, according to the United Nations, over 80 % of agricultural land is irrigated with groundwater.

Oman also has wetlands, and joined the Ramsar Convention of Wetlands a year ago. There is concern that areas attracting important birdlife are now being earmarked for marinas and hotel developments, particularly in the South so hopefully the Convention will ensure that wildlife and wilderness is protected forever.

What you can do
As well as monitoring your disposal of plastic bottles usage carefully, check out a wetland that is really off the tourist trail, yet 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. But you need to make an appointment to visit it, with details on their website. The Salalah lagoons are also worth catching.

Responsible tourism tips

Travel better in Oman

  • Alcohol is permitted in hotels and some restaurants who have obtained a liquor license, but you have to be over 21 to drink in Oman. Drinking alcohol in public is prohibited. Although during Ramadan, there is no drinking in public at all, so you need to do so in your hotel room or the designated restaurant in certain certified hotels.
  • It might come as a shock to some people when they visit live animal auctions, at many of which animals are being sold. There is a different culture regarding animals in Oman where the country is dependent on milk, meat and wool from cows, sheep, goats and camels.
  • There are numerous local Destination management companies (DMCs) that provide excellent services in addition to plenty of driver guides that are knowledgeable about natural and cultural wonders of the country – if specified beforehand while booking the guides. Multi-lingual guides are also available upon request, should you require a French or German speaking guide (in addition to other languages.
  • 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, and well they might, as 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. Always 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 go any closer than 10 to 15 metres to any turtle. Which also means don’t touch them of course. So, that photo of you sitting on a turtle’s back? – not a good look.

Photo credits: [Photos: Oman Ministry of Tourism]
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