As tourists flock to Dhofar for the khareef season, Alvin Thomas assesses the ever-increasing influx of visitors, and examines its impact on the beautiful place that pulls guests in for three months only.
They call it the ‘Kerala of the Middle East’.
It’s an other-worldly sight for the scores of residents who live in the underlying lush, green bowls that overlook the mountains of Salalah in the Dhofar Governorate.
It isn’t their first time witnessing the thick, dark clouds that kiss the peaking mountains but, as is the case every year, it piques their interest just as it did when they saw it for the first time.
And just like that, the otherwise dry lands of Salalah transform into something more than just home and another business district in the nation – just like the southern state of Kerala in India.
It becomes home to the seasonal monsoons that bring along with it rains and sub-30-degree-Celsius temperatures and monsoons that we fondly call ‘Khareef’.
The fruits of the rain are important to the country and turn Salalah and the underlying areas of Dhofar into a hub for tourists.
The exotic food indigenous to cooler parts of Asia, which is rarely associated with the Middle East, is also a crowd-puller.
Khareef, then, is vital to the Sultanate’s economy due to the rains. But how valuable is a question rarely posed.
In June, the nation’s southern city, is thronged with hundreds of thousands of tourists, all of whom are seeking to reconnect with nature as the sun glares down in other parts of the GCC region.
In fact, last year alone (2018), 826,376 tourists visited Salalah, making up nearly 61.2 per cent of the nation’s visitor count of 1.35million in the year. Not only does this make it Oman’s most-visited city, it also acts as a magnet for developers and event organisers.
For instance, Salalah witnessed more than 28.1 per cent more tourists last year than in 2017, according to figures revealed by the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI).
Aside from the rains, this peak in tourists can also be attributed to its geographical assets: the soft sand white beaches, valleys, flat plains, natural fountains and caves that offer tourists a glimpse into a little-known side of Oman.
During the months leading up to September, the city is to host the Salalah Tourism Festival – an annual carnival showcasing the culture and heritage of the nation.
Despite that, not everyone is happy with the numbers. Some observers say that, while Salalah is being bombarded by tourists, it still isn’t doing enough to build itself up as a tourist destination.
Oman earns RO75million every year during the Khareef season but it barely translates to 0.24 per cent of the nation’s overall GDP (gross domestic product) over the three-month Khareef period.
This, says Barakat al Abri, an economist based at one of Muscat’s top colleges, is a lost opportunity for the nation.
He says: “It’s the same thing every year. There are rains, and people visit the place to see the same things. They camp outside or take small lodges outside the main city.
“Not much has been done to take benefit of the blessings that Salalah receives every year in the form of rains – and believe me, a lot can be done to change this.
“Oman must aim to make at least RO100 to RO150 million every year from the Khareef season alone.
“We’re at a crucial time to make Salalah a brand name across the whole of the GCC.
“And by not acting quickly enough, I think we’re giving up on innovation opportunities and a lot of infrastructure – starting from basic amenities such as toilets and bins to entertainment and leisure facilities – that can be beneficial to the city during the Khareef season.
“We could be making this city the biggest tourist attraction in the Arab world but instead, we’re relying on the old infrastructure that needs to be complemented by new projects that will attract a wider audience than already is.”
Barakat then stresses how he fears that this, coupled with the post-cyclone Mekunu infrastructure, will affect tourism this year.
The aftermath of the cyclone that hit the coast in May, 2018 left a lasting impression on the lives of the residents; taking away four souls, causing nearly US$1.5bn (RO577,522) in damage including an estimated livestock loss at a cost of US$31million.
And, even as Salalah continues to rebuild itself, Barakat says that a lot needs to be done to restore the city’s ‘lost charm’.
But his view is not shared by Sultan al Amri, a member of the Ministry of Tourism (MoT), who is positive about the city’s future.
He says: “Yes, there are concerns raised by citizens of the country. But, if you were to actually visit Salalah right now, you’d realise how things have shaped up since the cyclone.
“In fact, much of the work had already been done by the beginning of the year and if it didn’t affect tourism last year then, how will it go down this year?”
Sultan points out that Salalah recorded its highest-ever visitor count last year post the cyclone.
In a separate interview in 2018, Abdul Kader – a tour guide from Salalah – said that tourist numbers were high that year owing to the gushing valleys, waterfalls and the crystal clear waters the cyclone brought with it.
Whether this trend will continue this year is yet to be seen.
Sultan does acknowledge Barakat’s view on the standard of amenities.
He says: “We’re doing everything we can to make everyone’s stay as pleasant as possible. For that, we’re working closely with the municipality, banks, local airline companies and even the Ministry of Commerce and Industry to get the facilities set up before the start of the season.
“As a result of this, more flights will be flown to Salalah these coming months. We’re also installing new restrooms for use, ATM machines and information centres so that everyone has a smooth and enjoyable experience.”
However, the ministry official declined to answer our query on the actual number of amenities set up in the region.
As for shopping options, Salalah offers plenty of markets and souks within the city, with more luxury options within the Salalah Garden Mall and Salalah Gallery Mall. Three malls – the Salalah Grand Mall, Oasis Mall, and Al Saadah City Mall – are currently under construction, too.
Moreover, several new properties have also opened their doors since 2018, which indicates that there’s more for tourists to explore.
This means Salalah’s residents anticipate the usual influx of visitors and maybe even more than last year.
Among the amenities is Oman’s first water-themed park – Hawana Aqua Park – which has quickly turned into a leisure hub following its launch in January last year.
Another potential draw is the hot air balloon festival – again, the first of its kind – which is expected to take place between July 20 and August 25. Not only will these balloons give tourists the option to take to the skies, it will also give them a bird’s-eye view of the city.
Speaking to the press, Khalid Al Nabhani, the chairman of Sabeen Group – the organisers of the ambitious hot air balloon festival – said: “Salalah is the perfect place to host this event because of the climate. The hot air balloon festival will change the phase of tourism in the country.
“This will now be an annual event and we urge investors and SME owners to come forward to be part of this great festival.”
Pegged at 500 baisas, the ride looks like being the most affordable balloon ride in the Middle East.
In fact, Y learns that it is these reasonable rates such as this, in and around the city, that attract tourists annually.
Our research into hotels shows that rates are currently as low as RO34, with even cheaper lodging options available in the vicinity.
Visiting Salalah with his family of four is UAE resident Roby Kannan. The engineer, who is on his first trip to Oman, says: “We decided to take a trip to Salalah before the summer vacations begin in the UAE. After that, nearly everybody will try to visit here.
“That’s probably when the costs will be driven up. Even then, I think the packages offered to families by tour guides are lucrative. They’re not cheap, but affordable.”
Tour package rates in the city hover anywhere between RO17 and RO95 depending on the duration and complexity of the tour.
Roby says: “Right now, Oman is vying with countries like Georgia and Azerbaijan to steal tourists, and they’re doing it with Salalah. In a way, it is working more than before because Georgia has become expensive.
“Also, Oman is somehow right next to home and is only a drive away and offers us several shopping options that we’re used to seeing in our hometown of Kerala in India,”
Roby then points towards a shop selling home-made perfumes, locally-sourced frankincense and textiles, and begins bargaining with the seller. He ends up with a packet of frankincense for RO3, which he has haggled down from RO5.
Markets across Salalah are awash with shops selling frankincense and buhoors; and silver jewellery, which is slowly gaining traction among young people. There’s also a good mix of vendors offering fresh milk, meat, Omani sweets; and agricultural products such as home-grown coconuts, bananas, papayas, sugarcanes and bamboos.
But not everyone is enamoured with burgeoning trade and potential development.
Mohammed al Riyami, a 66-year-old local fisherman is dismissive about the prospect. He says (translated from Arabic): “We hear the news of new projects coming up in Salalah and it’s quite worrying.
“For the thousands of people that come here to Salalah, it is just a place to be for a few hours or days.
“But, for us the residents, it is our life. While it is great that tourists are coming and spreading the word of Salalah to the world, the government needs to realise that this one of the most cultural- and heritage-rich parts of Oman.
“It shouldn’t be packed with expensive resorts and hotels, malls and restaurants – that’s going to break the market. Also, tourism to Salalah isn’t all-year round; the Khareef season is over by September.
“This means hotels and malls are going to be empty. We, as the dwellers of this land, cannot simply watch new investments come up and fail. It will break our hearts… as it did for many who are currently watching it happen in other parts of the GCC when the oil prices came down.
“I’m not saying that we don’t need new investments here, we do.
“But we’d like to see more companies coming to Salalah and experiencing what’s best for our land and work in tandem with us to come up with new ideas.
“People come to Salalah because it is the rawest form of nature they can ever see. And that’s what we should capitalise on in the future – the true spirit of connecting with nature.”