Desert Heritage, Modern Culture

Oman poised to win Culture Game?

After decades of, often criticized, conservative economic policies and cultural heritage protectionism, Oman is perfectly positioned to win tourism’s greatest prize: the cultural tourist.

Omani men perform Al-Taghrooda, traditional Bedouin chanted poetry.

After decades of, often criticized, conservative economic policies and cultural heritage protectionism, Oman is perfectly positioned to win tourism’s greatest prize: the cultural tourist.

One of the largest and fastest-growing global tourism markets, cultural tourism accounts for up to 40% of tourism traffic annually (OECD). The global wealth of traditions has become one of the principal motivations for travel, with tourists seeking to engage with new cultures and experience the global variety of performing arts, handicrafts, rituals, cuisines and interpretations of nature and the universe.

As a natural consequence to globalism, regular travelers are seeking more depth, context and authenticity than their mass ‘check-list’ tourist counterparts. They devote more time to each destination, spend more overall but need to feel a connection with the culture they discover.

“Tourists who come to the UAE for cultural reasons are key to the economy as they spend more money than those drawn by the sun and beaches,” the Abu Dhabi Minister of Foreign Trade states. Destinations throughout the Gulf are now actively developing their tangible and intangible cultural assets as a means of establishing a comparative advantage in an increasingly competitive tourism marketplace, and to create local distinctiveness in the face of globalization.

Dubai’s concert hall, created in tandem with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, forms the centerpiece of Dubai Culture Village, a section of the city near Dubai Creek to be devoted to galleries, entertainment and high-end shops.

Abu Dhabi for its part is promoting itself as the cultural capital, spending US$27 billion (Dh98.5bn) on a district on Saadiyat Island to house the Louvre and Guggenheim museums. Sharjah also is leaning on its cultural attractions to draw crowds, including annual art exhibitions featuring Emirati and international artists. The emirate currently has a heritage area, planetarium and several museums.

It is Oman, however, who, after decades of being referred to as Dubai’s plain cousin, has all the core requisites to dominate cultural tourism: diversity of space, culture and nature; integration of historical tradition and contemporary society; unique and authentic living heritage activities; and a stable political and economic climate

Authenticity, community and knowledge transmission are critical factors for successful cultural destinations and thanks to the Sultanates insistence on maintaining the country’s cultural identity in style, architecture and social norms, Oman has it all: nature, geography, heritage, arts, cultural events, living artisan crafts and diverse, active traditional communities.

Oman offers immersion while the rest offer diversion.

Arriving at Muscat Airport, the adventure begins immediately as international travellers first experience the Omani traditional dress and ‘fortress’ style architecture. Even at Quorum Beach in the center of Muscat, tourists enjoy the fruits of a natural reserve that stretches along the entire coastline. Driving in any direction provides opportunities to delve into deserts, lush green planes, coastal fishing villages, traditional communities representing both maritime and Bedouin culture and artisans still using traditional methods.

Rather than following the policies of rapid unbridled modernization, the Sultan has taken slower steps that promote development of a modern society without abandoning tradition and heritage. Whereas most Gulf nations are embarrassed by their tribal past, Oman’s numerous forts have received UNESCO status more than once and recall a time when it was the most militarized nation in the region.

Numerous nationalities in the region have an ancient seafaring tradition, similar to the Omani. The Dhows that were built by traditional artisans along their coasts helped drive trade as far as China and Europe. In fact, both Kuwait and Oman use the Dhow as a symbol of their society and government. It is common to find replicas and antique dhows in heritage attractions and cultural events, yet Oman is the only country where craftsmen still make the dhow in wood, using traditional methods. The boatyards of Sur built the
vessel that Alan Villiers, nineteenth century explorer, boarded for his landmark voyage from Madagascar to Oman; and, today, use the same basic design, modified for an engine, for clients throughout the Gulf and around the globe.

This living heritage provides tourists and academics with more than a mere example of the keen skill of Omani ‘Masters of the Axe’. They teach new generations the skills and life lessons that boatbuilding provides while continuing a cultural heritage that goes deep into many aspects of society. Visitors leave having learned something new from a past forgotten by most and a greater understanding of the Omani culture, it’s past and role in history.