For visitors who flock to Oman in hopes of exploring the Sultanate’s rich landscape and cultural heritage, the authenticity of their experience is what makes the journey memorable. Swati Basu Das meets the passionate local guides who never miss a chance to show the world the country they love.
The most rewarding aspect of travel (aside from exploring a captivating new locale) are the people you meet along the way – and Oman is no exception. Be they locals on the street who point you in the right direction, or friendly faces that strike up conversation in a coffee shop, encounters with the people who call your vacation destination home can turn your travels into so much more.
This is especially true of the local tour guides who walk with us along the journey of exploration. Much more than cultural ambassadors alone, they are storytellers and master craftspeople who skillfully carve an enduring legacy and sense of place, honing their culture to share with visitors to the Sultanate.
Heritage banner-men and -women, local tour guides, whose personal interpretations of local life and historic traditions, foster the most memorable encounters as they showcase their nation and its cultural identity. And for many Omani tour guides, it’s an endeavor they undertake in their spare time – freelancing on weekends and holidays, as a labour of love and out of a sense of pride for their homeland.
And with the national tourism strategy very much at the forefront of Oman’s Vision 2040, it’s an industry on which the government’s sights are firmly set on achieving new growth.
Oman, with its 3,165-kilometre coastline, its Jebel jewels, golden honey dunes of Sharqiyah, and distinct cultural history, has been welcoming tourists worldwide for decades – and Omani tour guides remain an essential element to the Sultanate’s sustainable tourism development. Helping visitors get up-close-and-personal with their surroundings while on tour, a good guide is much more than a simple attendant – he or she can have the ability to transform a guest’s entire experience.
A guide is a teacher of geography, history, and culture; they are a friend who offers travelers every comfort and hospitality of his or her land; and they are a conduit to an understanding and appreciation of the local lifestyle that defines Oman as a destination.
“An Omani tour guide is nothing less than an ambassador of the Sultanate,” says Ahlam Salim Al Harthi, Head of Tour Guide Section at the Ministry of Tourism. “They offer the best of Oman – especially while dealing with various nationalities. It’s through them that tourists can experience the traditional and natural richness of Oman. The Ministry of Tourism makes sure that any qualified tour guide meets certain criteria. An Omani [guide] must be multi-lingual to interact with people from around the world. Their cultural and historical knowledge about the Sultanate is a treasure trove for any traveler.”
Omani tour guides are, assuredly, scholars. Aside from being multilingual and possessing comprehensive awareness of any given locale, many local guides use their profession as means of sharing knowledge and oral history passed down by elders in their community.
Case in point – local tour guide Yasser Marhoon Salim Almammari. Hailing from Rustaq, he’s had a penchant for wanderlust and exploration since his childhood. “I travelled a lot with my father all over Oman and learned amazing facts and fiction about the different parts of my country,” he recalls. “I grew up listening to the fables narrated by my great-grandparents and their friends. Since then, it was my dream to be a tour guide and share information and stories to people who visit Oman. Since 1998, I’ve been living my dream as a guide – and there’s no looking back. It’s my passion to take my tourists across every corner of this versatile land of Oman.”
Saleh Ali Nasser Al Harrasi, an Omani tour guide from Nizwa who works for Tours by Local, is another guide who’s aware of every nook and corner of his country. “Books are my best friend, and they provide me with the information I want,” he says. “I get detailed facts about our rich history and our cultural evolution. I even travel a lot to know my land even better. Both reading and travelling open up the knowledge gate for me.”
Language is another essential tool in Oman’s tourism industry, and the ability to converse in multiple languages is asset that helps local guides conduct tours efficiently for international visitors. There’s an increasing demand for multi-lingual tour guides in the Sultanate and, almost every licensed tour guide is proficient in Korean, German, and Japanese.
“Tour guides play a crucial role in promoting the country,” says Ahlam Al Harthi. “They need to work in accordance with the set of regulations at the historical sites. Hence their evaluation is mandatory before providing them with the license. Language is one important factor. This year approximately 75 linguist Omani tourist guides got their license from the Ministry of Tourism. Last year the total number of licensed tour guides was 394.”
Exerting the extra effort to learn multiple languages, local guides have a better shot at making guests feel at home during their stay in the Sultanate. A linguist tour guide, Saleh Ali Nasser Al Harrasi believes German, for example, is a “golden language.”
“Our traveler friends are from different continents – mostly from Europe, the Far East, and the US,” he explains. “Knowing their language helps us to know each other better – and interacting with a tourist in their local language makes them comfortable.”
An educational opportunity in its own right, tourism is crucial to imparting knowledge, historical significance, and a sense of places to those locales visited. And, all diligent tour guides –such as Saleh and Yasser –leave no stone unturned when striving to awaken a traveler’s enthusiasm and interest in Omani heritage and history. As a result, visitors gather comprehensive vital knowledge about Oman, while their guides receive an honourable token of trust and amity in return.
“Every tourist considers Oman a safe tourist destination with no lowlights,” says Saleh with a smile. “They find the Omani people welcoming and friendly, and they leave with a promise to revisit with more friends and family. As a guide, this is the biggest gift we can hope to receive.”