Resuming tourist activities in Oman

Story: Gautam Viswanathan

When tourist activities were allowed to resume in the Sultanate, it brought in many of us a mixture of emotions.

Yes, we do want to experience Oman’s diverse, wonderful beauty, and the thrill that comes with it, but there was also a little bit of trepidation among us. Normally, we’d jump at the opportunity to explore the country, but these are far from ordinary times, and some concern at exposing ourselves to the chance of infection from the COVID-19 pandemic is understandable.

It is a concern shared by hotel operators in the country. Omran, the tourism development arm of the country’s government that runs many properties in Oman, has issued a raft of safety procedures as they welcome guests back to their hotels.

An asset manager at Omran Group said, “The group’s hotels have taken all precautionary measures related to COVID-19 to ensure the safety of guests and workers at the hotel facilities.”

In a statement to Oman News Agency (ONA), he indicated, “Omran Group, the executive government arm for the development of the tourism sector in the Sultanate, has launched a new version of its tourism campaign in Oman, aimed at stimulating local tourism by encouraging citizens and residents to reside in hotel assets and resorts of the group.”

Operators involved in other tourism and leisure activities have also ramped up precautions to keep their customers safe. I got to experience this first-hand, when my friends and I decided to go dolphin-watching one weekend.

Some of nature’s most intelligent, friendly creatures, dolphins have their natural habitats in the Sea of Oman, where many tour boats regularly take people both young and old to view these majestic, much-lovable mammals.

Among the measures taken by tour operators to halt the spread of the disease were social distancing on board the boats, a restriction on the number of passengers, and compulsorily wearing masks.

Despite these, we were keen to step out of the house and explore the seas in search of our aquatic friends. Doing, so though, would require me to do something I hadn’t done in a while: wake up early. Our boat was scheduled to depart from Marina Bandar Al Rowdha at 8am sharp, and that meant I had to rise a few minutes after the sun did. Nevertheless, it was totally worth it.

Four of us – a husband and wife couple, and a close friend of ours – would be on board the boat, our tour guide Ravi excluded. The sun grew hotter with every passing minute, but a brisk, refreshing sea breeze more than compensated for it.

As our boat puttered out to sea, the waves may have risen in little peaks and troughs, but our spirits rose with every mile we put between us and the shore: this was the first time many of us had set out to see dolphins in their element, not to mention how long it’d been since we’d gotten together!

Heading out onto the ocean was truly an experience: our rapidly accelerating boat thudded against the waves, whose salty spray hit us at regular intervals: the wife squealed, her eyes stinging, the rest of us were luckier…we were wearing glasses. Our shirts and shorts, though, not so much.

Ravi turned the boat this way and then that, scanning the sea for the dolphins, which had proven to be an elusive find so far. He radioed his fellow pilots: had they come across schools of the mammals? We had been warned, before embarking, that the chances of finding a dolphin on a particular day were about 50:50 and depended on two things – a calm sea and sunny skies. It was, therefore, common practice for those commandeering these vessels to radio their colleagues who were out at sea, should they come across any sightings.

Much like the waves, our excitement on seeing these sociable creatures started to ebb. It began to look like we’d have to wait until the next time we’d planned such an excursion, when Ravi suddenly gunned his engine and the boat streaked forward in response, rocking us in our seats. It was a sensation that lasted for only a few seconds, but one that would turn out to be worth it.

Bringing the boat to a halt, our guide motioned to us to come out onto the deck, and focus on a point not so far away. Squinting at a patch of the sea where the sunbeams hit the water, we finally came across the dolphins we’d spent the better part of an hour finding.

When the first dolphin did leap out of the water, it felt as if it were happening in slow motion. Tracing a graceful arc over the sea, the sun bouncing off its silvery, glistening body, all we could do was watch with expressions of amazement. Our phones, so often these days, tools to capture our joy, lay forgotten for a few seconds. This was something I’d only seen on TV, or read about in books, and to witness one of the world’s natural wonders made this a moment that would be difficult to forget.

The dolphin’s leap was over almost as soon as it had begun, but more of these amazing creatures followed in its wake, soaring over the waves for a brief period before plunging underwater again with an emphatic splash. To give voice to these experiences seemed difficult, and I couldn’t help but think that the lines from ‘A Whole New World’ that Aladdin sings to princess Jasmine would best describe them.

After all, we were out there in ‘a whole new world’, gazing upon creatures that were ‘shining, shimmering splendid’. Truth be told, I was in ‘a dazzling place I’d never known’, experiencing some ‘unbelievable sights, indescribable feelings’. It was evident that I was in a ‘a whole new world’, one that was ‘crystal clear’, and all this while, my mind had just one piece of advice for me: ‘don’t you dare close your eyes!’

Ironic, in a way: given where we were, I was expecting lyrics from The Little Mermaid’s ‘Under the Sea’ to pop into my head. Our time watching these amazing creatures may have seemed like an eternity, but in truth, it didn’t last very long. The dolphins went their own way, following the course nature had set for them in its infinite wisdom, while Ravi turned the boat around and headed back to shore, motioning for us to take our seats once again: so happy were we that it seemed impossible for us to sit still, but it was either that or risk falling off the boat.

30 minutes later, as we chugged back into the marina, and broke out the coffee and cookies – cut us some slack, it was the weekend after all – we reminisced on what had been an amazing experience for all of us. To witness the wonders of nature in its native surroundings had left all of us a little spellbound, and a whole lot more grateful for the world we live in.

There was, though, maybe one tiny regret: I didn’t have a Jasmine of my own to share this experience with. Maybe the next time, I will. – [email protected]