Renowned for its diverse marine life, Oman is rapidly gaining popularity worldwide as a scuba diving destination. But experts fear that a lack of environmental awareness is putting the future of diving tourism under threat.
Now a Dibba-based diving club is launching Oman’s first Arabic-language instructor course to draw more locals to the sport and create support for marine conservation.
“By encouraging an appreciation of diving in local communities, we can not only boost the local tourism industry, but also generate a greater understanding of the reef and the wider environment,” says Chris Chellapermal, the owner of Nomad Ocean Adventures, which also operates in Fujairah.
Nomad’s Arabic diving instructor course, which opens this month, will be taught by Lebanese course director Imad Khashfeh.
“At the moment, there are very few Omani divers and not many opportunities for locals to get involved,” Mr Khashfeh says.
“In addition to the language barrier, there are fewer diving schools in Oman than there are in the UAE. By training up more Omani divers to become instructors, they will spread the word to their friends and family members, organically raising awareness about the sport.”
Besides winning support from PADI, the international diving association, Nomad’s initiative is being praised by local divers.
“Oman is the hidden jewel of Arabia, but there isn’t much local involvement in diving,” says Nasser Al Khanjary, an Omani who took up the sport in high school after his teachers launched a diving club. “Teaching in the native language would definitely make it easier for people to get involved as they will be able to better understand the concepts.”
Mr Al Khanjary says the relatively high cost and lack of infrastructure make it more difficult for Omanis to take up diving, but agrees that “building a culture around diving locally will help to protect the environment around us”.
An increased interest in diving will lead to a better understanding of the connection between overfishing and reef damage, Mr Chellapermal says.
Raising concerns about Oman’s dwindling shark population, he says the fragility of the underwater ecosystem must be understood before the problem can be tackled.
“Fewer predators due to overfishing means an overpopulation of medium-sized fish, which in turn affects the population of small fish,” he explains. “With no small fish to eat the algae on the coral, it is dying due to lack of sunlight, which is negatively affecting the whole eco-chain.”
Overfishing is not the only threat to Oman’s marine environment. Steven Jones, who works with government body Omran to promote outdoor adventure sports and conservation in Oman, says littering is a growing problem outside of Muscat. “It’s no good having the most beautiful views in the world if you have to wade through knee-high rubbish to see them. Every time I go diving I see remnants of litter or fishing nets damaging the reef.”
However, after teaching conservation in schools, Mr Jones believes a lack of awareness rather than a lack of interest is the core problem.
“One of the biggest issues is that people don’t spend a lot of time outdoors,” he says. “I am working hard with the government to boost awareness about sports like hiking, climbing and caving, as well as water sports such as diving.”
“The interest from local schools has been incredible and I believe there will be a huge amount of engagement in these activities – there just needs to be more opportunities to get involved. I think training Omanis to become diving instructors is a good way to engage people with both conservation and sport,” he adds.
Ahmed Sayed, PADI’s director for the Middle East and North Africa, says dive clubs like Nomad Ocean Adventures have its full support in attracting more students from local communities. “We’ve been promoting Oman as a diving destination in the Middle East and we saw a 28 per cent rise in diving certificates being issued in the country in 2015,” he says. “However, the vast majority of these are tourists, suggesting that the industry is not being driven locally.”
PADI launched the Omani Dive Guide programme in 2015 to encourage more local participation. Eight young Omanis were given free training as divemasters, the first level of professional training that allows them to guide people and assist diving instructors during classes. Six of them went on to train as instructors.
“A diving instructor course in Arabic will give more Omanis the chance to learn to become instructors, without the problem of the language barrier,” Mr Sayed says. “We’re also keen to encourage women to try out the sport and we’ve just had the very first Omani lady qualify as a divemaster.”
PADI instructors incorporate environmental education into diver training at all levels. “Once people start diving they become much more engaged in conservation because they’re able to see the damage that’s being done by lack of awareness,” says Mr Sayed. “By building a community of local divers, we can help spread that passion for diving and conservation throughout communities.”