Oman has seen a 22 percent rise in visitors in 2017, attracted to its unique landscapes and unusual climate
Framed by the dusky Dhofar mountain range, less than 200km from the border with Yemen, Salalah may not have always been the obvious choice for western tourists, but that is starting to change, as Oman saw a 31.8 percent growth in European tourists and 22.1 percent in overall visitors in 2017, according to statistics by the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI) in Oman.
Famed for its ancient fortresses and well-preserved cultural heritage, the Gulf country is a pillar of stability and moderation in the region, while its capital, Salalah, is perhaps its most unique tourist offering, boasting forests of gnarled Boswellia trees, coconut-fringed beaches.
While tourists from the GCC accounted for most of the guests at Al Baleed Resort Salalah by Anantara, European tourists are starting to realise the charms of the Sultanate’s southern port city.
“Oman is definitely poised to be the next top touristic destination. Muscat airport is getting a huge facelift, Salalah’s infrastructure is new, and has direct routes from cities such as Dubai. Now we’re waiting for Abu Dhabi to come through,” says Victoria Benz, the resort’s director of communications.
The resort itself is designed to resemble an Omani fortress, boasting trickling water features and tropical landscaping. It has 88 private pool villas, with their own infinity pool, surrounded by equatorial plants that give the sense of a private jungle lagoon.
Expansive swimming pools, surrounded by a bar and a seafood restaurant, give way to pristine beaches that are virtually empty, and where buggies can be rented for a trip to the dunes.
Two archaeological sites are an easy walk away. One is Sumhuram, set on a rocky hill strewn with small grazing camels, gnarled frankincense trees and a lagoon with flamingos, while the other is Al Baleed Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, clustered thick with stone ruins that evoke a long lost age of global trade, when dhows plied the Indian ocean and Salalah, with its frankincense production, was a key point on the incense trade route.
Their trademark Asian-themed restaurant Mekong serves Thai, Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine, and is rated by Trip Adviser as the number one restaurant in the Sultanate. Waiters dressed in silk kimonos ply guests with complimentary sampler drinks, including one made with Sriracha chilli. On the dessert menu, glutinous sticky rice dumplings in caramal sauce are a speciality from the guest chef flown in for the weekend.
Also following the hotel’s Asian theme is the spa, a tribute to the tradition of healing, with treatments such as coconut scrubs, hamam sessions and Thai massages.
The monsoon “Khareef” season between June and September is Salalah’s most popular period, with a huge influx of tourists escaping the Gulf summer, descending to see the landscape bathed in green-tinted mists and monsoon rains, according to the director, Benz.
“They hike in the mountains, they picnic, they sit in the rain and in the mist and it’s quite cool. There’s also a huge night-time festival with cultural activities and dances.”
For the rest of the year, it’s still different weather to the rest of the Gulf, with temperatures more akin to the Bahamas.
Oman’s National Strategy for Tourism 2040, launched in 2016, aims for a six percent rise in tourist revenues, and a target of five million visitors by 2040 — double the current number of annual tourists at 2.7 million. Since November, the Sultanate has opened up further to tourists, extending visas to 68 countries, including 39 European nations.
Airlines such as Oman Air and low-cost carrier SalamAir fly into Salalah International Airport, with direct flights from Dubai via Oman Air and Fly Dubai operating daily.