Oman //

Travel essentials

Costs

Unfortunately, a visit to Oman doesn’t come cheap. The major expenses are accommodation and transport/tours. The very cheapest hotel rooms start at around 12–15 OR per night (£20–25/US$30–40), at least double this for mid-range places, and anything from 75 OR (£120/$200) and upwards for top-end places.

The lack of reliable public transport options mean that to see the country properly you’ll have to at least hire your own car (from around 15 OR/£25/$40/day), hire a car plus guide-driver, or go on a tour. The fact that so many of the country’s highlights require 4WD adds further fiscal punishment, meaning either hiring your own 4WD (from around 30 OR/£55/$80/day) or, more realistically, taking a 4WD with guide-driver (from around 80 OR/£130/$210/day). At least petrol is cheap.

Once you’ve paid for lodgings and transport, other costs are relatively modest. Eating can be very cheap (if only because of the lack of proper restaurants), although the price of alcohol (if you can find it) is punitive. Entrance fees to the country’s various forts and museums are extremely modest, however – seldom more than 1 OR.

Staying in the cheapest hotels, eating at local cafés, driving yourself and foregoing beer, you might scrape along on a bare minimum of 40 OR (£65/$100) per day per couple, without tours. Realistically, however, you’re probably looking at around double this figure once you factor in the cost of taking a couple of off-road tours or a boat trip in Musandam. And of course it’s very easy, in Muscat especially, to spend a lot more than this if staying in nice hotels and eating (and drinking) at good restaurants – in which case you could easily push this figure up to several hundred rials per day.

Many more upmarket hotels and restaurants levy a 17 percent tax (comprising an 8 percent service charge plus 9 percent government tax) on food and rooms. This is usually but not always mentioned in published room rates and menus – if in doubt, check. Cheaper places usually quote prices inclusive of taxes (the “nett” rate).

Crime and personal safety

Oman is an extremely safe country. Violent crime is very rare, and even petty crime such as burglary and pickpocketing is significantly less common than in most Western countries.

It pays to be sensible, even so. Make sure you have a good travel insurance policy before you arrive and protect all personal valuables as you would anywhere else, and take particular care of personal possessions in crowded areas such as Muttrah Souk.

If you are unfortunate enough to become the victim of theft, you’ll need a police report for your insurance company, obtainable from the nearest police station. Don’t count on finding any English-speaking officers, however; taking an Arabic-speaker with you will probably be a major help.

Far and away the major threat to personal safety in Oman is traffic, whether you’re a driver, passenger or pedestrian. As a pedestrian, bear in mind that traffic will not necessarily stop – or even slow down – if you start crossing the road, and may also be travelling a lot faster than you might expect.

Customs regulations

Visitors are allowed to import up to two litres (and not more than two bottles) of alcoholic beverages (non-Muslims only) and a “reasonable” quantity of tobacco. A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required for travellers arriving within six days from infected areas in Africa and South America. Travellers carrying prescription drugs should take a letter from their doctor stating that they are obliged to take this medicine.

Electricity

UK-style sockets with three square pins are the norm. The country’s current runs at 240 volts AC, meaning that UK appliances will work without problem directly off the mains supply, although US appliances will probably require a transformer.

Entry requirements

Citizens of most countries, including the UK, US, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, require a visa to enter Oman.

Tourist visas can be bought on the spot on arrival at Muscat airport, costing 20 OR (£37/US$55) for a one-month visa. Pay for your visa at the Travelex counter first; staff will give you a receipt which you then present at the immigration desk (signed “Tourist Visa”). Only single-entry visas are available at the airport (despite what signs say); multiple-entry visas have to be applied for in advance online (see Omani embassies and consulates abroad). If you’re driving from the main part of Oman up to the Musandam peninusla through the UAE you’ll need to buy a new visa every time you cross an Omani border for details. Note that embassy websites aren’t well maintained, and the visa information and prices found on them may well be out of date; if in doubt, ring.

It’s also possible to get your visa in advance by applying online at whttp://www.rop.gov.om and then sending your passport into your nearest embassy or consulate. Visas acquired in advance currently cost £40 for a single-entry, or £100 for a multiple-entry visa valid for either one year (maximum stay 3 weeks at any one time) or the same price for a multiple-entry visa valid for two years (maximum stay six months). There’s no point in going through the hassle of applying for a visa in advance unless you’re going to be entering and leaving the country a lot and thus need a multiple-entry visa. Note, also, that when applying online for a multiple-entry visa you’ll be required to fill in a section giving the details of a sponsor in Oman: enter your hotel name as your sponsor name and, for the sponsor ID, the figures “1111”.

Having an Israeli stamp in your passport is not a problem when entering Oman.

Omani embassies and consulates abroad

Australia Level 4, Suite 2, 493 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne 3004 t 03 9820 4096, whttp://www.oman.org.au.

Canada c/o US embassy.

Ireland 4 Kenilworth Square, Dublin t 01 491 2411.

New Zealand c/o Australian embassy.

South Africa 42 Nicholson St, Muckleneuk, Pretoria t 012 346 4429.

UK 167 Queen’s Gate, London SW7 5HE, t020 7225 0001, whttp://www.omanembassy.org.uk.

US 2535 Belmont Rd, Washington DC, 20008 t 202 387 1980, whttp://omanembassy.net & whttp://www.omaninfo.us.

Gay and lesbian travellers

Oman shares the medieval attitudes prevalent around the Gulf with regard to same-sex relationships. Homosexuality remains illegal, and anyone caught in anything that might be classed as a homosexual act is technically looking at a spell in prison, although local police are unlikely to go after foreign gays and lesbians unless given good cause to.

As with other places around the Gulf, a scene does exist (particularly in Muscat), but it’s extremely secretive. The only accessible online resource available at the time of writing is via Facebook (try “Gay in Oman” in the search box), although the few groups currently in existence appear to be largely made up of men looking for one-night stands.

In practical terms, the good news is that, given the sexually segregated nature of Omani society, male or female couples travelling together are unlikely to elicit any particular attention, assuming you behave in a manner consistent with local standards. Same-sex couples shouldn’t attract too much attention when checking into a hotel room together, assuming you stick to twin, rather than double, beds. Discretion is naturally the order of the day, at all times, and any public displays of affection or other unconventional behaviour should be strictly avoided, unless you know the people you are with very well.

Health

There are no serious health risks in Oman (unless you include the country’s traffic). All the main cities in the country are equipped with modern hospitals and well-stocked pharmacies. Tap water is safe to drink, while even the country’s cheapest cafés maintain good standards of food hygiene. One possible health concern is the heat. Summer temperatures regularly climb into the forty-degree Celsius range, making sunburn, heatstroke and acute dehydration a real possibility, especially if combined with excessive alcohol consumption. Stay in the shade, and drink lots of water.

Bilharzia is another possible risk if swimming in rock pools in the mountains.

Insurance

There aren’t many safety or health risks involved in a visit to Oman, although it’s still strongly recommended that you take out some form of valid travel insurance before your trip. At its simplest, this offers some measure of protection against everyday mishaps like cancelled flights and mislaid baggage. More importantly, a valid insurance policy will cover your costs in the event that you fall ill in Oman, since otherwise you’ll have to pay for all medical treatment. Note, too, that most insurance policies routinely exclude various “adventure” activities. In Oman this will include adventure sports such as caving, abseiling and rock-climbing, and might conceivably also include trekking. If in doubt, check with your insurer before you leave home.

Internet

There’s a decent number of internet cafés in some cities in Oman (Muscat, Salalah, Nizwa and Khasab, for example – all listed in the relevent guide chapters). Away from these places, however, it can be a real struggle to find anywhere to get online.

Internet access is also available in many mid-range and all top-end hotels, either via cable or wi-fi. Occasionally it’s free in these establishments but most often chargeable, often at extortionate rates (2–3 OR/hr is common).

If you really need to be online you might consider subscribing to the mobile internet service provided by Nawras (whttp://www.nawras.om), which uses a small modem that plugs into your computer’s USB port, giving you your own portable wi-fi system – but with prices starting from around 25 OR it’s a bit of an investment.

The country URL for Oman is “.om” – which looks confusingly like a typo for “.com”. If you find a .om address not working, try replacing it with .com, or vice versa.

Mail

Oman has an efficient and reliable modern postal service. Postcards and letters cost between 200bz and 400bz to Europe and North America, rising to around 5 OR for parcels weighing over 1kg, although if sending anything valuable you may prefer to use an international courier such as DHL or FedEx, who have offices in Muscat and Salalah. There are no reliable poste restante facilities in Oman. If you need to receive a letter or package, it’s best to have it delivered to your hotel (and to warn them in advance of its arrival).

Maps

The best map of the country is the Reise Know How Oman map (1:850,000). It’s printed on (nearly) indestructible paper and covers the country in clear and commendably up-to-date detail. For off-road maps, Off-Road Oman includes excellent satellite maps of 26 routes around the country.

Money

The Omani currency is the rial (usually abbreviated “OR”, or sometimes “OMR”), subdivided into 1000 baiza (“bz”). Banknotes are denominated in 100, 200 and 500 baiza and in 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50 rials (there are two types of one-rial note, coloured either red or brown). Coins are denominated in 5, 10, 25 and 50 baiza. Exchange rates at the time of writing were 1 OR = £1.60, $2.60 and €1.85.

ATMs and banks

There are plentiful ATMs all over the country, virtually all of which accept foreign Visa and MasterCards, as well as numerous banks, all of which will change travellers’ cheques and foreign cash. Many more upmarket hotels will also change cash and travellers’ cheques, usually at poor rates.

Opening hours and public holidays

Oman runs on a basically Islamic schedule. The traditional working week runs from Saturday to Wednesday, although some businesses also open on a Thursday morning, while Friday serves as the Islamic holy day (equivalent to the Christian Sunday). Usual business hours are 8am–5pm; government offices open 8am–2pm. Banks are usually open Saturday to Wednesday 8am–noon and Thursday 8–11.30am.

Shopping hours are slightly different. Shops in most souks generally open seven days a week, although most places remain closed on Friday mornings. Most places also shut down daily for an extended siesta from around noon or 1pm until 5 or 6pm, lending many smaller places a rather ghost-town ambience during the hot afternoon hours. Local cafés may stay open, although there’s unlikely to be much food available past around 1pm (more upmarket restaurants tend to stay open until 2 or 3pm, but then usually close until around 7pm). Things fire back into life as dusk approaches, usually remaining busy until 9 or 10pm.

Museums tend to follow a similar pattern, opening Sunday to Wednesday from around 9 or 10am to 1pm and from 4 or 6pm to 7pm. Some remain closed for the whole of Thursday and Friday; others open, but only during the afternoon/evening. Forts broadly divide into two categories. Smaller forts tend to be open Saturday to Wednesday 8am–2pm; larger forts are generally open Saturday to Thursday 9am–4pm and Friday 8–11am.

Phones

The country code for Oman is t 968. All Omani landline phone numbers are eight digits long, starting with t 2. Area codes (eg t 24 for Muscat) have now been integrated into the eight-digit format, and must be dialled irrespective of where you’re calling from. Mobile numbers also follow an eight-digit format, but begin with t 9. To call Oman from abroad you have to dial the country code plus full eight-digit number. Emergency numbers are listed.

Public phones are scarce in Oman and it’s well worth bringing your mobile (cell phone) with you; check the relevant charges before you leave home. European GSM handsets should work fine in Oman, although North American cell phones may not (excepting tri-band phones).

If you’re going to be using the phone a lot while you’re in Oman, it might be worth acquiring a local SIM card, which will give you cheap local and international calls. The leading local phone operator is Nawras (whttp://www.nawras.om), which has shops countrywide where you can pick up a SIM card (you’ll need to show your passport when purchasing). The pre-paid Nawras Mousbak scheme (5 OR including SIM card and 2 OR credit) is the easiest to use. Funds can be added to your account using the widely available scratchcard-style recharge cards, available from many local shops – look out for the window stickers. Other operators include Oman Mobile (whttp://www.omantel.om) and Samatel (whttp://www.samatel.om), who run similar schemes at similar prices, although shops and recharge cards are less widely available.

Photography

Oman is a very photogenic country, although the often harsh light can play havoc with colour and contrast – for the best results head out between around 7am and 9am in the morning, or after 4pm. Don’t take photographs of people without asking or you risk causing considerable offence, especially if taking photos of ladies without permission. In Arabic, “May I take you picture?” translates (roughly) as Mumkin sura, min fadlak? (to a man) or Mumkin sura, min fadlik? (to a woman). Men will probably be happy to oblige, women less so, while children of either sex will usually be delighted.

Smoking

Smoking is not permitted inside cafés, restaurants, bars, malls, offices and other public areas – although it’s usually permitted on the outdoor terraces of bars and restaurants. Cigarettes are cheap; a pack of Marlboros, for example, costs under 1 OR.

Time

Oman runs on Gulf Standard Time (GST). This is 4hr ahead of GMT (or 3hr ahead of British Summer Time), 9hr ahead of US Eastern Standard Time, 12hr ahead of US Pacific Time; 4hr behind Australian Western Standard Time, and 6hr behind Australian Eastern Standard Time. There is no daylight-saving in Oman.

Toilets

There are no public toilets in Oman. If you get caught short, head to the nearest plausible-looking hotel, restaurant or café. Pretty much all tourist attractions, including museums and forts, also provide toilets. Most toilets in Oman are of Western-style sit-down design, although Asian-style squat toilets are also occasionally found.

Tourist information

There are no proper tourist information offices in Oman (apart from a small kiosk at the Muscat airport), and getting reliable local information can be a struggle. Your best bet is to talk to one of the local tour operators listed. Staff at better hotels may also be able to provide local information, though this is decidedly hit and miss.

Websites

Useful websites for visitors include:

whttp://www.omanet.om Run by the Ministry of Information, packed with interesting background on the country’s culture, history and tourist attractions.

whttp://www.omanobserver.com Latest news from the country’s leading daily newspaper.

whttp://www.omantourism.gov.om Official website of the Ministry of Tourism, with extensive information and features on all parts of the country.

whttp://www.muscatconfidential.blogspot.com Insightful and entertaining musings on the latest political and other news from the sultanate.

whttp://www.muscatdeli.blogspot.com Perceptive reviews of restaurants in the capital and listings of forthcoming culinary events.

whttp://www.muscatmutterings.com Useful listings of forthcoming events in the capital plus links to other Oman-related blogs.

Travelling with children

Children form a central part of Omani life: treasured, fussed-over and generally integrated into most social situations. Families are usually large, and even quite young children are habitually included in social gatherings and night-time excursions at an hour when their Western counterparts are tucked firmly up in bed. For visitors with children, this means that your kids will generally be welcomed wherever you go (except perhaps in a few of Muscat’s more exclusive restaurants and bars), and may well prove a bridge between you and the Omanis in whose company you happen to find yourself.

There are hardly any dedicated children’s attractions in Oman, except the Children’s Museum in Muscat, although kids will enjoy many of the country’s mainstream attractions. Exploring forts can be fun, while some of the less strenuous mountain walks (or parts of walks) may also appeal. Turtle-watching at Ras al Jinz is a guaranteed hit, as are dhow cruises amid the dolphins of Musandam. Various desert activities such as dune-bashing and camel-riding are also good for older kids.

The main child-related hazard in Oman is the sun. Children are particularly susceptible to the effects of sunburn and heatstroke and should be wrapped up carefully and made to drink plenty of fluids.

Outside Muscat, it can prove tricky to find supplies of nappies and other essential items for babies and toddlers. It’s best to bring everything you might need with you from home.

Travellers with disabilities

Unfortunately, visiting Oman presents major challenges for travellers with disabilities. Many of the country’s leading attractions – including its rugged mountains and rickety old forts – are, by their very nature, largely inaccessible to visitors with impaired mobility. Muscat is the country’s most accessible destination. Some of the city’s upmarket hotels have specially equipped rooms, while leading attractions including Muttrah Souk and Sultan Qaboos Mosque are fully accessible (although you’ll have to check with your hotel as to whether they can provide you with suitable transport). Outside the capital things become more difficult, but you may be able to arrange transport through one of the tour operators listed. Muscat Diving and Adventure Centre (whttp://www.holiday-in-oman.com) and Oman Travel (whttp://www.omantravel.uk.com) are two recommended operators for travellers with disabilities, while useful pointers about visiting the country can be found at whttp://www.able-travel.com.