Thanks to Oman's relative calm amid the chaos of the Arab Spring, Muscat is becoming a destination by default: the last ancient trading post accessible to tourists; the anti-Dubai; Damascus without the car bombs. Though the Omanis didn't plan for this, the moment presents an opportunity to jumpstart the industry Sultan Qaboos bin Said has stated will be an integral part of his country's economy in the near future.
Oman's big move toward tourism has everything to do with the land itself.
The 10,000-foot-high peak Jebel Shams looms just outside of Muscat in the middle of a scenic desert that boasts grandiose canyons and gives the sense of expansiveness that so many travelers come to the Middle East to experience. This landscape has long been economically secondary to what pools beneath it -- millions of barrels of oil -- but as experts predict the depletion of this liquid windfall, priorities are changing.
About half of Oman's GDP currently comes from drilling and exporting hydrocarbons. The petrol-dollars entitle Omanis to free healthcare, free land grants and sparkling infrastructure, but experts predict the end of the bonanza in the long-term, particularly if prices decline. There is also the present problem of oil: It doesn't create jobs. After unemployment rates climbed higher than 20 percent, bin Said publicly heeded the calls of a few sparse bands of protesters and called on the private sector to spur job creation.
Today, a handful of intrepid travelers are visiting the biggest tourist draws in Muscat and setting out on desert safaris or diving expeditions off the southern coast. But officials need these trend setters to spread the word. Oman is banking on 12 million visitors arriving annually by 2020, an optimistic outlook given from the roughly 2 million a year the country receives now, according to the Ministry of Tourism.
A number of new developments will likely help.
Almouj Golf, a championship-level course that opened last December just west of Muscat, has lush fairways fronting the Gulf of Oman for more than a mile.
"Almouj Golf is more a links style of golf course, which is not found in Dubai," general manager St. John Kelliher told me, taking nothing away from the three different courses there that, like Almouj Golf, are operated by Dubai Golf, a company that has had success coaxing elite-level play out of desert sands.
Kelliher says the golf club, with its 18 Greg Norman-designed holes as well as a golf academy, driving range and a nine-hole par-three course, will help put Oman "on the world golfing map."
Almouj is part of a larger development here called The Wave, an expat-friendly, mixed-use development just down the road from Muscat International Airport, situated here for both the beachfront real estate and the logistical connections to the broader region. A 400-berth marina and four luxury hotels are also part of the blueprint, though construction is still in the early stages.
"With the development of the national airline along with the development of a new international airport and domestic airport locations, Oman is setting itself up to be a major player in attracting the international tourism market," says Kelliher.
Still, there is a difference between setting up to meet demand and having actual demand to meet. Muscat's obscurity is, fundamentally, the main hurdle to its growth as a destination.
The good news is that Oman is beginning to feel the love. Lonely Planet named Muscat the second-most-interesting city in the world for 2012, after London, and The Financial Times says bird watching and desert safaris are on the rise. Muscat now offers excellent hotels such as The Chedi, the Radisson Blu and the Grand Hyatt, as well as a new opera house. Oman in general offers exotic shopping and adventure activities spanning the gamut from "dune bashing" to water skiing. In March, a local film festival helped prove that Islamic morals and the arts are not mutually exclusive.
This great buffet of activities seems to be making a difference.
“Touristic demand for the UAE and Oman is steadily increasing,” Martin Massueger, SWISS Director Area Management Middle East/Africa, told me. "Even though the capacity offered by the Gulf Carriers is constantly increasing, we are able to maintain a rather high seat load factor.” In other words, airlines keep adding flights and customers keep booking them.
No wonder. All the activities and developments aside, Muscat is memorable city that offers an intriguing blend of native and Portuguese history. Masonry watchtowers stand along nearly every ridge, watching over the Gulf of Oman and the Straight of Hormuz, the waterways through which a significant volume of the world's oil pass every day. Dubai may be building a brand-new cargo airport, but Muscat has been a trading port for 2,000 years.
With Egypt reeling from its revolution, Syria consumed by sectarian violence and tensions mounting in Israel, Oman is now carrying the banner for the region's historic destinations, searching for a middle way in the Middle East.
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