Salalah in trouble as Covid-19 curtails tourism for second year in a row

Taxi drivers, tour guides and other seasonal workers struggling with low visitor numbers

Tour guides and their charges are lamenting a lack of atmosphere in Salalah, Oman, as lockdowns and evening stay-home orders keep tourists away.

Seasonal workers sit idle as Covid-19 scuttles hopes of relief for the city’s tourism-dependent economy in this year’s summer months when it is usually wildly popular with regional visitors.

Raid Al Darbooni, a taxi driver in Salalah, said movement restrictions to stem the spread of the coronavirus had almost halted tourism this year.

“This is the second year in a row that we are going through hardship," Mr Al Darbooni, 34, told The National.

“My business relies heavily on tourists coming here and without them, it is really hard for us to make ends meet.”

Last summer, Oman cancelled Salalah’s famed Khareef Festival for the first time in 34 years. Entry to the city was barred for the whole summer when Covid-19 in the country was at its worst.

The festival, held during the cooler monsoon season, draws visitors from the Gulf hoping to escape the summer heat elsewhere in the region.

In 2021, Salalah is open to tourists. But a string of restrictions, including a night-time lockdown from 5pm to 4am and a requirement that visitors must have at least one Covid-19 vaccine shot, has kept most tourists away.

Independent tour guides, who depend heavily on tourists, also speak of hardship as they mostly sit at home idle with very limited income.

“I had only three families of Emiratis this month to take them around to different attractions in the city. This is in comparison to 20 to 25 families a month around this time. We thought this year, after a bad year last year, it will get better, but it only got slightly better,” said Salim Al Shanfari, 31, an independent tour guide.

The few tourists from the Gulf who have turned up say all festivals have been forbidden and the only attractions left were the mild weather and beauty spots.

“The usual bustling of this city is not here for the second year in a row. We miss the large shopping festivals, songs and dances in the streets. Though it is still nice and the weather is better than in the UAE, the usual spirit of festivity is not here this time, like last year,” Ahmed Al Masroori, 52, from Abu Dhabi, told The National.

Before the start of the pandemic, the Khareef Festival pulled in more than 100,000 Emiratis and about 300,000 visitors from other GCC states. Emiratis make up about 10 per cent of the Salalah Khareef visitors, mainly because of the proximity and the traditional ties between the two countries.

The popular festival attracts famous Arab singers such as Lebanese star Nancy Ajram, who performed there in 2019. Other entertainment includes concerts, folk dancing, exhibitions, live performances, shopping arcades and traditional markets.

Tourists generate an income of about 50 million rials ($130m) during the summer festival in the southern resort city, known for its large population of camels and its greenery.

There are no official statistics on how many tourists have visited Salalah this year or how much money they might generate this time around. But tourism experts say it will be severely restricted.

“I would say only 10 per cent of the usual tourists are here so far, since the beginning of the summer, and not many more will be here in the rest of the summer months. So, without any doubt, income to businesses will be severely affected this year, too, like last year,” Saad Al Saadi, a retired member of the Salalah Tourism Association, told Reuters.

The sub-tropical Salalah has mild weather during the summer, when the average temperature is about 27°C, compared with the rest of Oman, in which the temperature can soar as high as 50°C.

Updated: July 27th 2021, 11:23 AM