Story: Gautam Viswanathan
Ideally, this would be the best time to visit Salalah. The Khareef season, with its gentle drizzle, cool breezes and refreshing mists draws visitors from across the region and beyond.
In addition to people in Oman, the amazing weather and the stunning greenery that lasts from June to September, which are the hottest months of the year in the rest of the Middle East, often sees people from the other Gulf countries undertake long road trips to Dhofar.
Off-road excursions is the norm at this time of the year, and it is not uncommon to see SUVs with Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini and even Qatari licence plates on Omani roads right now, intermingled along with the many red-plated rent-a-cars that are hired by tourists who’ve travelled a few thousand kilometres by flight to Oman’s southern region.
But these are far from ideal, let alone normal times. While the COVID-19 pandemic has put paid to any thoughts of tourists coming to Oman, entering the Dhofar for those who live outside it is impossible: to limit the spread of the disease, the governorate has been under isolation from the rest of the country for quite some time, which means very few people are able to enjoy this amazing weather.
As Manpreet Singh, the chairman of the Indian Social Club in Salalah puts it, “Right now because only the locals are able to experience this. Normally, during this time of the year, the Khareef Festival is normally underway, and there are so many things for children to do, there are many roadside shops set up for the tourists, but this year, it is very quiet here.”
“It is a completely different Khareef. I have been here for the last 23 years, and this is the first Khareef during which we have faced such a situation,” adds Manpreet, who also serves as the honorary consul for Salalah of the Embassy of India in Muscat, the capital. “Normally, thousands of tourists come here to enjoy, but this Khareef, only the locals and expats in Salalah are able to enjoy the weather.”
Tourists who come to Salalah during the Khareef season and are keen to navigate its – to them – unfamiliar territory – are often more than happy to hire a local guide who lives in the area and is only too willing to show them around. While some of these locals do have day jobs that keeps them busy otherwise, some rely on tourism as their main source of income.
A licenced tour guide who has his own travel agency, Ghanim Mahad Ali Fadhl spends the months before the festival organising trips for people who want to come down for this unique experience, recommending to them the kind of accommodation that suits their needs and preparing a list of places he knows they’d enjoy.
For the Dhofari native, this year has been like no other, but that’s not just because the weather this time around has been even more exceptional than it normally is. He says, “This year, people would have really enjoyed the Khareef season. It hasn’t rained a lot during this period, but the weather is still amazing, and because it rained so much before the Khareef began, all of the waterfalls and wadis are flowing in full force right now, and this is something you really have to see. Hopefully, people can come after the Khareef, because Salalah is always beautiful.”
“I get people asking me when the lockdown will end, when the airports will reopen, but I have no answer to give them, because I don’t know,” admitted Ghanim. “At least 15 people ask me that every day. Earlier, when people asked me this, I told them to book their travels to Salalah no sooner than the 15th of August, but we are already there, so now I tell them to book their holiday in September, but again, I don’t know if that will be possible.”
In the Dhofar, particularly in Salalah, as well as other areas, given the large influx of tourists who arrive there during the traditional summer months in the country, it is common for Dhofaris to buy up apartments in buildings and then rent them out to visitors from outside both the governorate and the country, so that they can experience what it’s like to live as a local.
Extremely high demand among tourists ensures these apartments always remain occupied, with some bookings taking place months in advance. It is a lucrative source of income for apartment owners, who often then use this money to meet their monthly expenses and save for the future. The pandemic, though, means that many cannot recoup the investment they’ve made so far.
“There are many people here who are not that affected by the loss of tourists, because they have other businesses, and they are able to survive right now, but there are quite a few I know who have been very strongly impacted by this pandemic,” said Ghanim. “A lot of people use the money they get from the tourists to pay off their bank loans, but that has not been possible this time, so they are definitely feeling the impact.”
Ahead of the Khareef season every year, Omani tour guide Ali Mohammadi, who also runs the travel blog Oman Tripper, receives plenty of emails asking him for advice on the best spots to see in Oman’s south. Other travellers – mostly from Europe – ask if he can take them on a guided tour when they come to Oman.
Often, Ali is happy to take these visitors around and show them the wonders of his country, and refers them to other authorised guides, should he not have the time himself, because of work and family commitments. This year, though, all of his replies to emails have the same response.
“I have to tell the tourists that it is not possible to visit Oman and Salalah right now, because of the pandemic,” he admits. “Many of them ask me when it is likely to be able for them to come to Oman, but I tell them that it is not possible for them right now. I myself went to Salalah last year during the Khareef. It is a great place to see, and I am sad that more people cannot experience its wonders this year, but the pandemic has made all of us re-evaluate our priorities.”
Last year, in the build-up to the Khareef, Ali received about half a dozen email requests a day. Some of them dealt with requests to organise tour guides, while others requested him to create an itinerary for them to follow while in the country. He hopes that people will be able to soon come and experience what Oman has to offer, but feels the country will focus on domestic tourism for a while, until the effects of the pandemic subside significantly.
It is an opinion shared by Faiyaz Khan, the head of travel for tourism agency Travel Point, who has also had to field many queries on the state of the Dhofar from visitors who wish to come from Europe, as well as closer to home, in the other GCC countries. The blissfully cool weather and amazing greenery found during the Khareef makes Salalah a treasured destination for visitors from the rest of the Arabian Gulf, at a time when the weather in the Middle East is the hottest in the year.
Because of the distances involved, European holidaymakers make their travel plans at least six months to a year in advance, while those living in the Gulf are able to travel at far shorter notice. Faiyaz and his team have had to repeatedly tell potential holidaymakers that they are unable to accommodate their requests at present. The questions he receives are the same as those fielded by Ali and Ghanim.
“Last year, we managed more than 1,000 bookings alone for those who came to experience the Khareef season,” he recalls. “This time, we have received about 30 queries from people on our social media pages, through email, and by telephone, but we have to tell the customers that we are not taking any bookings for the Khareef season right now.
Faiyaz adds, “There are still bans on flights over Europe, so travellers from those areas cannot come to the country, but from the Gulf, we get a lot of visitors from Saudi Arabia who want to experience the Khareef, and they are willing to travel to Salalah even tomorrow if the lockdown and restrictions are lifted because they really like it there.”
It is, however, not just visits to Salalah that require the restrictions to be lifted: the company has paused the promotional campaigns they normally run during this time of the year, to raise awareness of the Sultanate as a destination before the traditional tourism season, which runs from September to April. As part of this, Travel Point normally also organises a domestic tourism campaign.
“We are trying to make arrangements for two Bollywood film crews who want to come to Oman right now, but because there are restrictions on travel, that’s been put on hold. We are trying to approach the Ministry of Tourism to get permission for them.” says Faiyaz. “There are also quite a few parties from India that had planned to have their destination weddings here in Oman, but that, sadly, is a request we’ve not been able to fulfil either.” – [email protected]