Feature - Middle East tourism; not an oxymoron 

Oman is seeking to introduce ‘controlled’ tourism; backpackers need not apply

When we think of the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, the first places that come to mind are undoubtedly Iraq, Iran, Israel or Saudi Arabia. Chances are many of us envision Gulf War soldiers, suicide bombings, bearded terrorists, or bleak desert landscapes. The last thing one would imagine is choosing this region as a holiday destination.

When I first announced to my friends that I was spending my holidays in Oman, I was met with looks of disbelief and confusion, especially since the majority of them had no clue where Oman was even located. My family was worried that I would be killed or imprisoned in a foreign jail.

Their reaction seemed justified, since the mass media daily depicts this area with images of violence, death and stories of anger towards the West. These same thoughts went through my head as I sat in transit in London’s Heathrow Airport, watching the Madrid bombings unfolding across the British news stands.

While many Middle Eastern nations are focusing their efforts on oil-led wars or bombings, Oman is welcoming foreign tourists to explore its picturesque beaches and desert landscapes. This small, virtually unknown Arab country, officially called the Sultanate of Oman, forms the second largest country in the Middle East and is quickly becoming the vacation "gem" of the region. The Muslim-dominated country borders Yemen to the south, and both Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE) to the northwest, overlooking the Arabian Sea and Gulf of Oman.

The fact that the Sultanate of Oman has long been isolated from the outside world is not surprising, considering that Oman neither sought nor welcomed visitors for the longest time.

Oman is a small nation of 2.5 million people, of whom 25 per cent are expatriates, mostly from Europe and the Indian subcontinent. Oman’s colourful past has included foreign invasions from the Persians, the Iraqis, the Mongols, and the Turks. Its people are of Arab origin, with the majority being Ibadi Muslims; others are Sunni and Shia. Omani society consists of seafaring people and agriculturalists of the Batinah Coast, while the interior consists of the mountain people of Dhofar and Musandam, and the Bedouins of the desert areas.

Oman was once at the hub of the frankincense trade route, and prospered mainly from its trade in slaves, gold, dates and spices. Oman also has the distinction of being the only Arab country with influences in Africa, having ruled parts of East Africa and Zanzibar.

These historical influences have made the country a focal point between East and West; the sultanate maintains strong ties with both the United States and United Kingdom.

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