“Waiting for [both] the Barbarians”: Tourism in the Dhofar Region of Oman – 2009

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

Risse, M. “Waiting for [both] the Barbarians”: Tourism in the Dhofar Region of Oman,” Traditions and Transformations: Tourism, Heritage and Cultural Change in the Middle East and North Africa Region; Amman, Jordan. April 6, 2009. Paper presented by Dr. Sheena Westwood, College of Communication and Media Sciences, Zayed University, Abu Dhabi.

The narrator of Constantine Cavafy’s poem explains that his town is “waiting for the barbarians.” Everything is in a state of confusion and expectation as when the barbarians arrive “they will make their own laws.” But, as night falls, the barbarians have not arrived; in fact it is rumored that there are no barbarians and the narrator wonders “what shall become of us without any barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution.”

The government of Dhofar is not, in a similar manner, merely waiting for barbarians to show up in their green hills, but there is a similarity to the poem. Barbarian tourists are a “kind of solution,” bringing in revenue and creating jobs. In this paper I would like to discuss the present and future of this energetic group of people in the Dhofar region of Oman. Dhofar is in the middle of the southern edge of the Arabian Peninsula, the south-western corner of Oman. Salalah is the largest city with many villages spread out to the border with Yemen to the west and the fishing village of Hasik to the east. To the north, there are many villages in the Qara Mountains and, beyond the mountains, a few villages exist in the desert plains on the outskirts of the Empty Quarter.

An exuberance of geography makes Dhofar a  nature-based tourist destination: green plantations in Salalah, perfect beaches, desert, reefs, and a monsoon bringing rain and fertile crops in June, July and August. Two of the most popular destinations are Darbat, a small lake surrounded by grazing land and Tawi Attair (“the well of birds”) a large sinkhole which is home to many species of birds. In addition, Dhofar has a long history encompassing religious sites, such as Job’s Tomb, and an extensive mercantile tradition through the sale of frankincense, as evidenced by the archeological sites of Samhuram at Khor Ruwi and Al Balid. As frankincense is the best known export from this region, the government has developed a frankincense park so visitors can see the trees close up and the Haffa Souq, where tourists can find all different qualities of luban, as well as majmars, the clay containers used to burn it.

Increasing tourism in Salalah is a goal of both the regional and national government. The solution that the barbarians offer is not simply increasing revenue, but increasing the number of jobs for young Omanis. To give a specific example, eight years ago, the ancient harbor of Khor Ruwi near Salalah had no modern structures, signposts or fences. Four years ago, the beach was still open and free for picnics and swimming but on the nearby hillside were new official buildings, new fences, and an entry fee into the archaeological site. Now there is an entrance gate and admission fee for the beach. As the fee is low, about $3 per car, the goal does not seem to be revenue generation as much as 1) protecting the site and 2) creating jobs for Omanis as guards, drivers, workers/ supervisors at the new café.

Located between the Emirates and Yemen, Omanis can clearly see the benefits and costs of modernization with its attendant influx of foreign tourists, as well as the costs of not modernizing and not creating a tourist sector of the economy. The Omani government is trying to carefully create a tourism sector, steering between these Scylla and Charybdis. Thus, Khor Ruwi has been turned from one of a number of pretty beaches into a “museum” for tourists. This area, to me, represents the current Omani policy towards tourists: gentle containment.

But who is the Ministry of Tourism containing? Dhofar is unique in having two very different kinds of “barbarians.” The region welcomes Arab tourists in July and August and European tourists between November and March. Having two distinct sets of tourists (Arabs, usually from the GCC, traveling in large family groups looking for rain, and Europeans, mainly older Northern European couples, looking for sun) has created a distinctive, bifurcated tourist industry.

The first tourist season starts in June in which tourists arrive in Salalah to escape the high temperatures and unrelenting sun on other parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Over 450,000 (over 415,000 from the GCC) arrived for the 2008 “Khareef,” the monsoon season of clouds and mist which turn the mountains green. Many Salalah residents rent out their houses  to the tourists. Visitors are not allowed to camp, so there are many small, impromptu “businesses” which spring up to guide tourists to houses and apartments for rent. The hotels are full and every so often there is a news report that tourists are “sleeping in the mosques.” This is related to me by locals with pleasure; that so many people want to come to Salalah is seen as a matter of civic pride.

The government of the Dhofar region actively plans to assist/ accommodate these visitors in a variety of ways. There is a special ‘festival’ with entertainment programs (famous singers, local dances, etc.), there are bilingual, brown road signs to point the way to tourist sites such a Job’s tomb and Mughsal beach, many of the favorite ‘beauty sites’ such as natural springs or mountain overlooks are ‘up-graded’ with paved parking spaces, picnic tables and concrete huts. Darbat, the most famous wadi in the area, has new fencing along the road.

When the sun returns in September, the Arab tourists leave and Salalah returns to its gentle, small town feel. Then, around the beginning of November, you have the first sightings of the winter tourists. The two largest hotels in Salalah, the Crowne Plaza and the Hilton, started a joint venture in 2005 to accommodate a plane load of Swedish tourists who fly direct from Stockholm to Salalah once a week.

The hotel rooms have specific, friendly guidelines about “respecting local culture,” including women keeping their elbows covered in public. Yet the road near the Crowne Plaza often has hotel guests walking from the hotel to the nearest grocery store wearing sleeveless shirts and carrying bottles of water. No one walks in Salalah and no one wears sleeveless shirts but this 1 km stretch of road is a kind of DMZ, the taxis don’t even bother to honk to check if they need a ride.

At the beginning of April, as it becomes hotter in Dhofar, the Swedish charters stop and the town waits impatiently for the clouds and rain of Khareef in June.

In interviews with Edward Chaaya, General Manager, Crowne Plaza; Andreas Justkowiak, Direction of Operations, Hilton; and Osama Mariam, Chief Executive Officer, Dhofar Tourism, all three men agreed that Dhofar was poised to become a major tourist destination. As the promotion video for the Mirbat Beach Development proclaims, Dhofar has: “pristine nature, diverse wildlife, vibrant heritage” in an investment friendly, peaceful nation.” “Unspoiled” and “undiscovered” are two words which come up frequently in Ministry of Tourism information packs.

The “unknown” factor of Dhofar has actually been helpful in the recent economic downturn; not having too a high dependence on tourism now means that the global recession has not hit Salalah. Both the Hilton and the Crowne Plaza hotels have plans to expand which are currently on hold, but they reported only slightly lower occupancy rates. The government budgets for tourism improvements have not been cut back. Major road construction between Salalah and Taqa, for example, continues, and the airport road was recently widened.

Upgrading infrastructure (roads, power, electric and water) is essential for expanding Dhofar’s ability to increase tourism, as is more flights. Oman Air has ordered new planes in an effort to improve service to Salalah. With only three flights daily, currently there is not enough seats to accommodate more tourists. The reason the Swedish charter has been so successful, explains Edward Chaaya, General Manager of the Crowne Plaza, is that there are no airport transfers. Most visitors to Salalah currently need to change planes in Muscat, which usually involves an overnight stay.

2012 is the ‘magic’ year for the Dhofar region.  The government plans to have the airport doubled in size by then, as well an expansion of Salalah Port and the Salalah Free Zone. The Muraya project, near Taqa, with three five-star hotels also plans to open in 2011/ 2012.

In agreement about Dhofar’s potential and the changes needed to realize that potential, the management of the Crowne Plaza and Hilton also agree that any future plans must take into account the dual nature of tourism.

Sun-starved European tourists arrive by plane in couples or small groups as part of a package deal; a few cruise ships also stop at Salalah Port during the winter. Western tourists stay in the large hotels, move as large units in tour buses. Most of this groups needs are met by the hotel but the government needs to: organize/ supervise tour guides; create, develop and interpret ‘sights’ such as the Al Balid museum, the frankincense park, the Shishr excavation. This group of tourists expects and needs stereotypical “Arabian” experiences such as seeing/ riding camels and a visit to the ‘traditional souq’. At the hotel, they need sun chairs, umbrellas, BBQs under the stars, and patio chairs. The Swedes do not need nightclubs or luxury shopping, preferring a boat tour to see dolphins and a dart board.

The GCC tourists in Khareef have no desire to see sand or camels. As most arrive in cars carrying many family members, their basic need is a place to sleep. They spend most of the day either driving or picnicking in the mountains, now covered in mist.

Unlike Swedish tourists who enjoy the sun and sights all day and sleep early, Khareef visitors usually nap in the afternoon and need entertainment in the evening. This means two government-sponsored festivals with a replica of a traditional village, displays of handicrafts, live demonstrations of weaving, out-door hubble-bubble cafes, children’s rides and events such as showcases of local songs and dances, poetry concerts, live radio/ TV broadcasts and a Moroccan-style night club at the Hilton. In terms of government intervention, this type of tourist needs upgraded roads, designated picnic areas, family-oriented activities such as concerts, festivals, and shopping opportunities; organized/ supervised house and apartment rental policies; attentive policing; and extra trash collection. An increased number of drivers on steep, fog-covered mountain roads also requires additional medical personal to cope with an increased number of accidents.

The two hotels have a slightly different focus. As Andreas Justkowiak, Direction of Operations at the Hilton explained, 25 to 40% of his hotel’s business is corporate or military as the hotel is next to the free trade zone and port. Given the current problem of pirates off the coast of Somalia, navies from many countries are sending boats to patrol the area and ‘shore-leave’ usually means Salalah. The sailors take over the department stores and the hotel swimming pool areas, causing the small expat community to send warning SMSs to each other – “don’t go to Hilton, American ship in port”. The sailors will occasionally rent a SUV with or without a local guide and go exploring. They need basic maps with tourist sites clearly labeled, clear and fair car rental policies and lists of local restaurants which are able to handle large groups of gregarious, high-spirited 20-30 year olds.

The Crowne Plaza, has fewer corporate guests, but is working to expand the number of local Omanis who use the hotel. Edward Chaaya, General Manager of Crowne Plaza, has two reasons for encouraging locals to visit the Crowne Plaza. One is to interact with the Swedish tourists. He deliberately discounts the price for a gym/ beach membership for locals so that the Swedes see “authentic” Omanis at the hotel, while the Omanis can see and become accustomed to Western tourists and the hotel.

Having local men visit the hotel means that they might stop at the restaurant for a coffee or hubble-bubble, perhaps eventually arrange a business meeting at the hotel. In 2004, the hotel hosted one wedding of a local Omani couple, in 2008 there were 65 weddings, with an average attendance of 450 people on each occasion. In addition, local families are beginning to rent the beach villas for a weekend away from home.

Chaaya has set up separate entrances for women during weddings and screened off portions of the restaurants to make locals feel more comfortable. Of course, he is approaching the issue with an eye on the bottom line, increasing local revenue makes the profits of the hotel more stable at a time when fewer people are traveling for pleasure.

But I am interested in this deliberate attempt to ‘mix’ Omanis and foreigners in terms of what this means for Omani culture. In a region of about 240,000 people, there are approximately 75 Western expat teachers, there are expat employees at the port, free-zone and military base but the opportunities for interaction are few. Besides the Crown Plaza, there is one restaurant and one coffee shop in Salalah where you could find Westerners and Omanis sitting at neighboring tables or sometimes at the same table.

Interactions between the two groups are generally pleasant. I have lived in Salalah as a single American woman for over three years and have never had a moment of unease or worry in any exchange with an Omani. But these exchanges are limited to work situations, at the university or, for example, the telephone company. Omanis are extremely courteous but the infamous ‘expat’ bubble is hard to break in Oman. An extreme example of this can be found in an article published in the Times by a man who came to Dhofar for a camping trip; he never actually spoke to an Omani. The trip leader was British and the ‘guides’ were Indian; the cuisine had nothing to do with traditional local specialties, featuring duck pate and fine wine, which caused the writer to opine that the desert is “in my blood. The silence, the emptiness, the calm: no wonder so many religions are born here” (Joly).

Edward Chaaya, General Manager of Crowne Plaza, remarked that for some locals there is “nothing to see” here and that the potential for tourist development needs to be explained. Many families earn enough by renting their house out during Khareef that they don’t see the need or desire for increasing the number of tourists and there are occasional remarks that more money is spent for tourist needs (paving scenic overlooks and constructing sun shelters) than local needs (paving gravel roads and putting up street lights).

Both the management of the Crowne Plaza and Hilton would like to get more locals interested in the tourism industry. For example the Hilton works with the Ministry of Manpower in creating an internship and trainee program. The two biggest challenges to hiring locals is proficiency in English and retaining employees given the divergence between family/ tribe demands and hospitality industry expectations which require a degree of flexibility in scheduling on weekends/ overtime/ being called in on sudden notice.

Knowing the learning curve in creating a full-scale tourist industry is steep the government included tourism as one third of its strategy to increase private industry in order to decrease the country’s reliance on oil revenue. The other two sectors are minerals/ manufacturing and agriculture, including roses, dates, limes, coconuts, and fishing (Hoch).

Specifically the government has stated it is interested in “up-market”/ “quality rather than quantity” tourists, “rather than risk the consequences of mass tourism, Oman’s tourism industry is setting its sights on the more discerning traveler” (“Oman Development,” 12). At the beginning this meant business travelers and expensive package tours (Hoch), but this has expanded to the “blue rinse” market (i.e. seniors), the cruise ship market and twin destinations (“MBRs boost tourism”). To increase tourism, market-based representatives have been placed in various European countries including Great Britain, France, Germany, Scandinavia, and Australasia.

This plan has been effective. There were only 14,000 tourists in 1995 but tourist arrivals doubled between 2000 and 2005 (“Travel and Tourism in Oman”). Oman is now one of the top ten destinations for British vacationers (“MBRs boost tourism”). There is a complimentary push to market Oman as a second home market for GCC nationals. In Muscat you can see examples such as the Blue City residential project, The Wave, Muriya and the Shangri-la resort (“Travel and Tourism in Oman”).  Travel Trade Gazette, in February of this year, stated that tourism added 943 million Omani Riyal to the GDP in 2008 and the government is planning for tourism to add an additional 1.6 billion O. R. to GDP by 2018.

Thus Oman is moving cautiously into this area of development and, helpfully, Oman has a long history of interchanges with other cultures. As far back as 4th century BCE, the Dhofar region engaged in commerce with Mesopotamia and India. The trade of frankincense, horses, copper and other products connected Oman to the outer world until the late 1800s. So in a sense the “new” government policy on tourism is simply a return of a previous “overseas-centered” outlook.

But, the culture of the Dhofar region, although modern in appearance with cell phones and satellite dishes, is still deeply traditional. When I taught “The Importance of Being Ernest” in a literature class in Salalah, most of my students enjoyed the antics of Algernon and Jack, but some complained that the story was about “bad people” – several students asked why we were reading about men who lied and women who did not behave well.

The issue didn’t split the class in two but it certainly created some tension between one camp saying “this is not good literature because it is not serious” and the other side saying “lighten up.” We had some good conversations about the definition of good literature and everyone was relieved that there was a “proper” ending but “you are not supposed to read about bad people” was a line I heard several times.

\I am certainly not advocating inflammatory texts but “The Important of Being Ernest” has no objectionable, heretical or blasphemous language. It is one of the most revered, anthologized, loved and admired plays in English. My students want a college education, they want to learn to speak, read, write and understand spoken English – but they only wanted specific texts which fit exactly into their expectations.

The same issue of regulating contact with a foreign culture arises when I have asked local tour guides how they view the tourists they have met. The answer is uniformly positive. “I have never had a bad experience,” said one. That is heartening but when I question about how they view an increase in the number of tourists, the answer is always, “more tourists would be fine, but they need to respect the local culture.” Yet that is exactly what tourists rarely do.

In all of the discussions about increasing tourism, I have heard no remarks about what will happen when the values/ morals/ worldview of the local culture is confronted with “barbarians.” For example, there is a large 5-star hotel now being built by a conservative fishing town about an hour’s drive from Salalah. When speaking with a representative from the development company, I asked about the potential impact of tourists on the town. The response was that the hotel had offered the town’s leaders to help them restore their traditional souq. Not mentioned was the possible impact of large numbers of Europeans, in European swimwear or lack thereof, on the numerous immaculate beaches near the resort which are currently the sole province of fishermen.

Now, the few tourists at the Crowne Plaza who stroll down the beach, past the hotel grounds and onto the part of the beach used by local boys to play soccer, are greeted with silent stares. The European tourists are now too few in number to make a difference in the culture or challenge traditional ways. But increasing numbers will increase contact points. Some of that contact will be positive, as the Omani-Swedish mixed volleyball games at the Crowne Plaza. But reading yet another lurid travel article, I cringe at the misconceptions and misunderstandings between cultures. Another Times article about the Dhofar region included these over-heated words:

Out of the Arabian desert rode ferocious aestheticism, the whirlwind of Islam, the fury of prophets, a cruel absolutism, and the implacable belief in a religion of iron practicality and brass nerve

The desert nomad has seemed the paragon of manliness. He represents what we must once have been: lawless, a wanderer following his flocks, responsible only to his family, governed by the unwritten law of steely formality guarded by a spring-loaded temper, never forgiving, never forgetting, bowing to nothing less than God and the crescent moon. (Gill)

Mind you that’s “following,” not leading his flocks, “lawless” and yet “governed by the unwritten law”, and “bowing to the moon.”

Then the writer deals the coup de grace, praising Oman for not being “a collection of oil wells with a hankering to look like Singapore on the Gulf, whose highest aspiration is to be the holiday resort for footballers, drunk expats and Hello! shoots.” Thus it ever is with tourists, they find the ‘unspoiled place,’ declare it perfect in laudatory articles in the Times, and then are shocked, shocked, to see that the place turns into a “holiday resort for footballers, drunk expats and Hello! shoots.”

Footballers, drunk expats – barbarians indeed. Huns running around grocery stores in bikini tops and surly Vikings demanding extra towels. Countries like Egypt, which have endured tourists for centuries, have developed their own coping mechanisms, but for a country such as Oman, which is beginning to play tourist roulette, I would advise caution and containment.

I use the metaphor ‘roulette’ deliberately. The culture in Dhofar is a combination of town, desert and mountain Dhofari sub-cultures, with a mix of Indian, Pakistani, African and Western expats, but the differences within Dhofar are much smaller than the differences between Dhofar and, for example, main-stream European values. As business and tourism, (i.e. capitalistic ways of thinking), increase, the current solidarity will be challenged. And, it is not possible to pick and choose what aspects of modernity are going to arrive and how they will affect the culture.

The motto of the Dhofar tourism industry is “tourism enriches.” This is true, visitors pay for hotel rooms, rental cars, entrance fees to museums, restaurant tabs, local crafts – they create jobs and cash flow. They can also bring an extensive list of problems including pollution, drugs, prostitution, issues with sewage disposal and physical degradation to the natural environment. As pointed out at the “2005 Conference on Sustainable Tourism” on World Tourism, with Omani and UNESCO officials, there are “numerous implications of tourism to societies” including a negatively impact on the currently pristine coastline and jeopardizing water resources with features such as swimming pools and golf courses.

The barbarians will come. They will write ridiculous articles. They are a kind of solution, but a solution that needs careful management.



Discover Oman will help boost Tourism in Oman.” Discover Oman. June 15, 2003. http://www.ameinfo.com/25107.html. March 24, 2007.

Gill, A. “Oman: The Turban Warrior.” Times online, 29 January 2006.

Hoch, Christopher. “Trade and Tourism in Oman – TED Case Studies.” Trade and Environment (TED) Database. http://www.american.edu/TED/omantour.htm. March 25, 2007.

Joly, Dom. “Chasing Shadows in Oman.” Times online, 16 December 2007.

“MBRs boost tourism.” Times of Oman. January 24, 2006. http://www.menafn.com/qn_news_story_s.asp?StoryId=122834. March 24, 2007.

“Muscat Declaration on Built Environments for Sustainable Tourism.” World Tourism Organization. http://www.world-tourism.org/sustainable/doc/DeclarationOman-e.pdf. March 25, 2007.

“Oman’s Development.” Travel Trade Gazette, issue 169, Feb. 1 2009. page 12-13.

“Oman Tourist Statistics” – e-mail exchange between “baaboodA@aol.com” and “perryh@omantel.net.om.” September 15, 2000. http://www.counterpunch.org/pipermail/oman-1/2000-September/000844.html. March 24, 2007.

“Travel and Tourism in Oman.” Euromonitor International. January 2007. http://www.euromonitor.com/Travel_And_Tourism_in_Oman. March 25, 2007.

Uki, Ali. “Tourism: Time to Make a Difference.” SafariLands. March 14, 2006. http://www.safarilands.org/index.php/tourism/more/tourism_time_to_make_a_difference/. March 27, 2007.


Edward Chaaya, General Manager, Crowne Plaza – February 23, 2009

Andreas Justkowiak, Direction of Operations, Hilton – February 25, 2009

Osama Mariam, Chief Executive Officer, Dhofar Tourism – February 28, 2009


“Waiting for the Barbarians” by Constantine P. Cavafy (1904), translated by Rae Dalven

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are to arrive today.


Why such inaction in the Senate?

Why do the Senators sit and pass no laws?


Because the barbarians are to arrive today.

What laws can the Senators pass any more?

When the barbarians come they will make the laws.


Why did our emperor wake up so early,

and sits at the greatest gate of the city,

on the throne, solemn, wearing the crown?


Because the barbarians are to arrive today.

And the emperor waits to receive

their chief. Indeed he has prepared

to give him a scroll. Therein he inscribed

many titles and names of honor.


Why have our two consuls and the praetors come out

today in their red, embroidered togas;

why do they wear amethyst-studded bracelets,

and rings with brilliant, glittering emeralds;

why are they carrying costly canes today,

wonderfully carved with silver and gold?


Because the barbarians are to arrive today,

and such things dazzle the barbarians.


Why don’t the worthy orators come as always

to make their speeches, to have their say?


Because the barbarians are to arrive today;

and they get bored with eloquence and orations.


Why all of a sudden this unrest

and confusion. (How solemn the faces have become).

Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly,

and all return to their homes, so deep in thought?


Because night is here but the barbarians have not come.

And some people arrived from the borders,

and said that there are no longer any barbarians.


And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?

Those people were some kind of solution.