Tour guides and traders in Oman’s Jabal Akhdhar mountain range hope visitors will be back in 2021 after the coronavirus pandemic devastated their tourism-driven businesses this year.
The ancient town of Al Sogara, built into the side of the mountain range, is a popular attraction and used to be a good source of income for local tour guides until the area was closed off in April because of the pandemic.
“I used to earn about $3,000 a month taking tourists to Al Sogara village. The last time I took tourists in the village was April 29 and since then my income has totally stopped because of the coronavirus. I really hope tourists will come back in 2021,” said Yahya Al Riyami, 32.
Jabal Akhdhar was reopened last week as Oman announced that visitors from 103 countries would not need visas to enter the country in a bid to bring tourists back. Local reports quoted the undersecretary of tourism, Maitha Al Mahrooki, as saying the country had lost 500,000 million rials ($1.25 billion) in tourism revenue this year.
The Jabal Akhdhar range in the Al Dakhliya region is also home to Jabal Shams, which at nearly 3,000 metres is one of the tallest peaks in the Arabian Peninsula. More than half of the 120,000 visitors who visited the area last year headed to the top of Jabal Shams for the panoramic views, according ministry of tourism. This year, less than 4,000 tourists made it up there because of the coronavirus restrictions.
“Our tallest mountain is now almost empty. Only wild goats go up there now. I used to organise hiking tours to Jabal Shams. Tourists, especially Europeans, loved the all-round view of the towns below," Mohammed Al Shraiki, 27, a hiking organiser in the village of Al Ayn, said. "Thanks to the coronavirus, I am now struggling to make ends meet because I have not seen a tourist in eight months. We need them back in 2021 to survive."
But it is not only tour guides whose business has been pushed into the red by the pandemic; restaurants owners, too, are feeling the bite.
“My restaurant caters typical Omani dishes and tourists love it," said Adil Al Subhi, 48, a restaurant owner in the village of Hail Yaman.
"My village is located halfway to the top of Jabal Shams and is seen as a resting spot by many visitors to Jabal Akhdhar. Now very few of them turn up for our lunches and dinners. In the whole of 2020, we have had only 20 per cent of the usual dining traffic in our restaurant compared to 2019.”
Regular visitors to Jabal Akhdhar this year say its towns have lost their spirit and the few tourists who have turned since last week looked lost.
“You usually see many activities there. Rock climbing, bungee jumping, trekking, wadi swimming, camping and hiking. But this year the spirit of the massive mountain is completely lost without tourists moving around. As a regular visitor there, I thought it was very sad when I visited there last month without the usual action. It is also a shame to see local traders struggle to make money,” said James Talbot, 42, a British civil engineer working in Oman.
Mr Talbot hoped that the start of coronavirus vaccinations would encourage the return of tourists.
“We hope and pray for the vaccination to start as soon as possible. We are nearly at the end of a terrible year and we would like to see people being vaccinated by next month so they can start coming up here to revive local businesses,” he said.
Oman’s health ministry said on Thursday that the country has ordered 2.2 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that has been already approved by other Gulf countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Oman will start vaccinations at the end of December for citizens and residents over the age of 16. People above 65 and those with underlying medical issues will be inoculated for free while others will have to pay, although the government has not yet decided on the amount.