Oman's desert solitude draws in new wave of visitors

Tourists and residents alike drawn to Sultanate's untouched expanse

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The solitude of Oman’s desert is attracting rising numbers looking to escape from everyday stress.

Many drive out to the dunes at the weekend in search of the perfect spot to get away from it all.

Among them is Aiman Shibani, whose daily routine in the city as a banker can be overwhelming.

“The silence in the desert is very healing. You hear no noise and your eyes can look at a spot where the sky touches the sands,” Mr Shibani, a banker in the National Bank of Oman in Muscat, told The National.

To sit in the silence far away from home, watching the sunset or sunrise or the wind blowing the sands, has a fantastic healing factor
Ibtisam Al Busaidi, a psychologist based in Muscat

"You cannot do that in the city. There are concrete buildings anywhere you go and the sound of traffic even in the middle of the night."

He is far from alone in his quest for tranquillity, with the meditative quality of the vast desert’s resounding silence becoming more and more desirable.

A 240km drive from Muscat, the remote Wahiba Sands in eastern Oman is the most popular desert getaway for both Omanis and foreign residents.

“I lost my job as a cashier in a supermarket a month ago and I find places like Wahiba Sands a stress buster,” said Abdulwaheed Al Farsi, 26. "You can pick a lonely spot from the vast desert and meditate to forget your troubles."

But solitude is not the only antidote for the stress of working life.

Those trying to recover from personal losses also find the Wahiba dunes appealing.

“I lost my wife a year ago to cancer and I suffer from clinical depression but I find desert camping with friends a perfect thing to forget my miseries,” Salim Al Rushaidi, 68, a retired civil servant, told The National.

It is claimed its spectacular, orange dunes inspired British travel writer Wilfred Thesiger to write Across the Empty Quarter. Published in 1959, the book details his gruelling experience through the sands of UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen.

Thesiger camped for two nights at Wahiba Sands before crossing the Empty Quarter desert in 1945.

Richard Wayne, who is in Oman for a two-week holiday, said he camped at the exact spot where Thesiger supposedly slept.

The mechanic, 36, from Portsmouth, southern England, said a Bedouin claimed that Thesiger was guided by his grandfather, “and that’s how he knows of the spot".

"I camped for two nights at the spot to try to feel what he felt when he was there,” he added.

Popular destination with tourists

So it is clear that Oman's residents are not the only ones looking to camp in the serene surroundings of the desert.

Travel agents say there is a rise in demand of desert tours in the winter months from December to March.

One official from the Ministry of Heritage and Tourism estimated a 20 per cent increase in tourists since the peak of the pandemic.

Before the coronavirus outbreak, the Sultanate welcomed 3.4 million tourists in 2019. Soon after a worldwide pandemic was declared, the Gulf nation registered only 356,000 tourists crossing its borders the following year. But numbers rebounded to 2.78 million for 2021.

Naifeen Al Bahrani, owner of Desert Delights Tours based in Muscat, told The National: "Desert camping is very popular in Oman. There is a rise of about 70 per cent in winter desert tours compared to the summer months.

Aiman Shibani enjoys the peace and quiet on top of a Wahiba dune. Photo: Safa Al Shibani

"People typically camp there from just one night to five days. It depends on their time availability."

In efforts to boost tourism in collaboration with local companies, the Omani government this week announced that Muscat Nights will take place during the winter season.

Ahmed Al Hamidi, chairman of Muscat Municipality, told the Sultanate of Oman Television channel that the series of event would “increase the number of tourists, both domestic and international, by having different entertainment and activities on beaches, shopping malls, theatres and town centres, including festivals in the parks".

Take care in the desert

A Ministry of Heritage and Tourism official warned campers of the need to take general precautions while touring the desert.

"They should avoid dehydration and take plenty of water," said Mohammed Al Saifi, "Campers must only use four-wheel drive to avoid getting stuck in the sand.

"Most importantly, they should not go camping in an area when rainwater may collect during showers."

For tourists and residents alike, the positive effect of desert calm cannot be denied. Psychologists acknowledge that the solitude of quiet surroundings can be a healing factor.

Ibtisam Al Busaidi, a psychologist based in Muscat, said: “To sit in the silence far away from home, watching the sunset or sunrise or even the wind blowing the sands, has a fantastic healing factor for stressed thoughts."

"I personally recommend my patients to camp in the desert for a few days to heal themselves.”

The spot at Wahiba Sands where Wilfred Thesiger supposedly camped in 1945. Photo: Safa Al Shibani
Updated: January 19, 2023, 9:52 AM