CASTLES IN THE SAND

Oman 2014 | TOURISM | FOCUS: UNESCO WORLD SITES

Oman has a unique offering that it hopes to use to help fulfill its Vision 2020 target of attracting 12 million annual visitors.

The four World Heritage sites located in Oman are likely to play an increasingly important role in achieving the Sultan's new plan, Vision 2020. The aim of the Vision, which was launched in June 2013, is to increase both the number of annual visitors arriving in the country to 12 million, and the sector's contribution to GDP to 3% from its current 2.4%. Oman has traditionally relied on its regional neighbors for sources of tourism; however, with booming markets in Asia and the EU slowly getting back on its feet, now is the time to grasp these new opportunities. UNESCO sites have a unique ability to draw in both foreign and domestic travellers.

One of the first Omani sites to be listed is the Bahla Fort. It was built in 12th Century and is one of four fortresses along the foot of the Djebel Akhbar highlands. Once completed, it made Bahla the capital of Oman from the 12th to the 15th Century. The fort consists of a network of adobe walls, 12-kilometers in total, 50 meter tall adobe towers, and sandstone foundations, making it quite susceptible to damage from the rainy season. Bahla Fort was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987 and placed on the List of World Heritage Sites in Danger in 1988, largely due to the damage caused by rain, as well as some poorly planned out restoration work in the 1990s, which used non-traditional methods and incorrect materials. However, once the restoration was completed properly, the site was taken off the endangered list in 2004. In 2009, a new UNESCO led management plan was adopted in an effort to extend the longevity of the fort, but also allow people to enjoy the historic site sustainably. Bahla Fort had been closed to visitors for many years; however, in September 2012, it was partially reopened to the public again. The Fort of Bahla, in addition to the nearby forts of Izki, and Rustaq, and Nizwa were the centers of Kharajite resistance to Caliph Harun al-Rashid.

Shortly after Bahla Fort was listed, in 1988 Oman attained its second listing with the archeological sites of Bat, Al-Khutm, and Al-Ayn. These sites bear historical significance to the early settlers of the Oman peninsula by providing a timeline of funeral practices during the Bronze Age. Dating back to 3,000 BC, Bat was first excavated in 1972 and includes settlements, a necropolis, waterways, and five towers, one of which—built between 2595 and 2465 BC—has been fully excavated. Between the three sites, there are over 100 dry stone “beehive" tombs, some of which have been dated back to the 4th Century BC.

In 2000, Oman achieved its third -UNESCO World Heritage listing for the Land of Frankincense. These sites are spread across the country and represent the trade route for one of the most important luxury goods of the Old World. The old route stretched from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea, India, and then on to China. There is also evidence that at least part of this route was used all the way back in the Neolithic era up to the late Islamic Period. The route consists of four main areas: the Oasis of Shisr, the Port of Khor Rori, the Fort of Al-Balid, and the Frankincense Park of Wadi Dawkah. Both Khor Rori and Al-Balid also helped boost the site's nomination for listing as they are regarded and outstanding examples of medieval fortified settlements in the Persian Gulf region.

The final site to receive a citation is the Aflaj Irrigation System, which was listed in 2006. The site includes over 3,000 still functioning systems of ancient engineering technology. Little is known about the origins of the irrigation systems, due to the fact that no written records have survived; however, the technology is known to date back to the Iron Age. The aflaj were used to cultivate palms and other agricultural products, and were extremely popular in the arid desert.

Oman also has a further eight sites on the Tentative List awaiting approval; however, in 2007 the Sultanate received the unenviable title of the first country to ever have a site delisted from the World Heritage register. The Arabian Oryx Sanctuary had been listed in 1972 as the only place where the Houbara Bustard, an endangered bird, still existed in the wild. However, due to Oman's decision to reduce the site by 90% and subsequent decline in the population from 450 in 1996 to 65 in 2007, the site was removed from the list.

With four current Heritage sites and a possible eight more waiting in the wings, Oman certainly has the potential to boost its tourism numbers and per capita spending if successful in capturing the interest of potential visitors.