SEAS THE DAY

Oman 2014 | TOURISM | FOCUS: SAILING

Oman's illustrious sailing tradition is making a comeback, and its Olympic rivals best be warned.

The Sultanate of Oman can proudly claim to have a millennia-old tradition of boat building and sailing, which led to the region flourishing in times past. The trade and shipping of frankincense, gold, spices, silk, and tea made the inhabitants of Oman wealthy, and it is all thanks to the dhow, the renowned and pioneering ship design of the region. Omani shipbuilding has long been celebrated, from the classic heavy-load Baghlah, to the distinctive Sambuk, and its pedigree as a seafaring nation is unquestionable. Although present on the high seas for thousands of years, it reached the zenith of its sea power and elegant design in the 18th and 19th centuries; however, the Omani sailing tradition was in sharp decline by the turn of the 20th century, a trend which is finally being reversed. The age-old ports of Muscat, Sohar, and Sur are the venues for this rekindling of people's links with the sea.

A NEW BEGINNING

Oman Sail was founded in 2008 with the express purpose of reconnecting Oman with the sea, through both pleasure and sports sailing. Omantel and the Oman Shipping Company have been proudly sponsoring the Oman Sail events for the past three years, managing to entice around 11,000 Omanis of all ages to the activity. It has been so successful that Oman Sail's organizers have decided to expand the scope of the annual events to Sur, a small town on the easternmost point of the country's coast, which was one of the principal maritime construction yards. It is still dominated by the sea, and this year's event will once again associate the town with its traditional activities.

LUXURIOUS, INTERNATIONAL

The strategy, in conjunction with the Ministry of Tourism, involves not only these national events, but a strong push toward the global tourist market, too. David Graham, CEO of Oman Sail, notes that it has been successful in “branding the Sultanate of Oman internationally through our sailing campaigns." As for commercial shipping traffic, Oman is well positioned to service yachts and mega yachts travelling from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and the islands of the region. Developments such as The Wave, with its luxury marina already providing berths, confirms the growing interest in the expanding market for pleasure boating in Oman. The Ministry of Transport and Communication reports that more than 60% of registered maritime units are pleasure craft.

LOCAL, ROBUST

The national strategy is dissimilar, but no less ambitious; students from eight to 18 years' old are receiving an education in sailing through Youth Sail training programs. Since 2008, the equivalent of 140 students a week have been getting to grips with the activity. In addition, classes for women and other sections of the community have been organized, and Oman Sail has been focusing on raising awareness with families and across Omani society at large. The classes are taught at Marina Bander Al Rowdha, The Wave, and the Al Musannah Sports City. “Right now, we are building a school in Sur, and we are in discussions in Sohar and Khasab, while participating in talks in Salalah, and carefully watching the development of Duqm," explains Graham, adding that “by 2020 our target is that a total of 70,000 Omani children will have learnt to sail at eight sailing schools along the Arabian Gulf coast." The grander scheme involves guiding these sailors through to joining the national team, and ultimately participating in the Olympics, a desire expressed by both Graham and Dr. Amer Awadh Al Rawas, CEO of Omantel.

GOING FOR GOLD

Apart from the expansion of sailing events and the hosting of a number of prominent international competitions in 2013, Oman has another reason to celebrate this year; the impressive performance of Raiya Al Habsi at the 2013 Rolex Fastnet Race, a Plymouth-based 611-mile contest held in August. The 25-year-old Omani came in just 24 minutes after the winning boat. “I can hardly believe I finished," she said, “it felt good to be part of such a successful team." The win was a success for Oman in a general sense, with the Oman Air Musandam MOD70 trimaran providing the country with welcome publicity. Raiya is not the only woman to embrace the sports-side of sailing, with three of Oman Sail's female sailors receiving the excellence award for Most Achieving Woman in Sport 2012.

BACK TO BASICS

As Oman Air and the aviation sector of the Sultanate continue to fly high, it is comforting to see that the watery roots of this seagoing Gulf nation have not been forgotten. With the national airline sponsoring boating competitions, and the Ministry of Tourism working sustainably and effectively with Oman Sail and its partners, the horizons are broadening for Oman. By returning to a tradition that served its people well, perhaps Oman will find its fortune on the waves again soon.