Operators of desert safaris and tours in Oman, who were literally deprived of making hay while the sun shines, had to abruptly fold up business during the peak tourist season since early January when COVID-19 began to spread around the world and in Oman. With no signs of business picking up and a spate of restrictions underway, some of them wonder how long will it be before they can take groups on desert adventures again, to spend nights under starry skies in some of the most exotic locations in Oman.
Salim al Hajri, proprietor of Oman Discovery Tours, which conducts tours to Ras al Hadd, Sur, Jalan, Wadi bani Khalid, Wadi Tiwi, Wadi Shab and coastal areas, said, “As all other businesses, where the movement of people is at its core, are allowed to continue, we are still affected by COVID-19 and its consequences. Normally, we deal with tourists from Europe, USA and Asia, besides those from within Oman. However, due to the lockdown in most of these countries since January, our business shrunk to almost zero, including tourists from inside Oman, though business is subdued in summer due to the hot weather.”
About safeguards that will have to be introduced henceforth while conducting tours, Hajri said, “Tourism is an activity that is mostly done in groups. So, to keep our tourists safe, we will apply all of the precautions that are given by the Supreme Committee for COVID-19, like social distancing, wearing masks and other precautions. We will also try to avoid closed places and restrict our tourism programmes to open areas such as desert dunes.”
He, however, did not foresee the need to raise tariffs to bear the added cost of the precautions as he felt these were basically safety procedures which need to be followed, like wearing masks/gloves, social distancing, etc. “We might need more vehicles to carry tourists around as fewer numbers than usual can be carried and this may add a fraction to the total cost which will be explained to guests,” he said, adding, that it will be better to conduct smaller groups to ensure their safety and control their movements in tourist destinations.
Another proprietor of Bediyah Safari Tours and Desert Private Camping Company, Hamad al Shaaili, said, “We have been affected a lot by this pandemic in the peak season which concludes by early March. Most of the tours were cancelled and business had to be shut completely. Regarding the next season, which is supposed to start in September, there are no signs till now about what to expect as the virus is still making headlines in the media.”
About new initiatives to instill confidence in guests, he said, “Our guests are always safe with us and we care for them much. We will also contact them to find out their requirements and take up natural methods of ozone disinfection as we do not support the use of chemicals in the interest of our guests. However, we are yet awaiting an update from the government with regard to what changes need to be introduced. Everything is still unclear.”
A spokesperson for Al Nahda Hotels and Resorts, which operates the popular ‘Dunes by Al Nahda’ desert camp at Wadi al Abiyad sands, near Barka, Dr Mary Ann, said, “The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on the global economy and the hardest hit is the leisure industry. With the lockdown across the globe, including Oman, it has drastically affected business at the peak of the tourist season. We had to close our Al Nahda Hotels and Resorts and fly the majority of our employees home, retaining a handful of senior members to hold the fort.” She, however, added, “It has been a relief to reopen our Hotel and Resorts again and we have been pleasantly surprised with the local response.”
On an optimistic note, she said, “When the global corridors to travel reopen, I foresee International tourism, the likes of which we have never experienced, this winter in Oman. The euphoria of freedom after the lockdown will irresistibly draw them to the healing golden sunshine of unspoilt Oman. This will partially help recover lost business.”
To enhance the safety and instil confidence in guests, the resort has adopted elaborate guidelines for ensuring the health and safety of all guests, based on expert advice and guidelines from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Government of Oman, so as to offer guests a minimal contact experience with the utmost safety. The procedures include a range of measures, from use of thermal scanners on entry to sanitisation and disinfection drills in all public areas and touch points to ensure that guests as well as staff are safe and protected from contracting any infection.