Following reopening of Muttrah Souq on August 18 five months after it was shuttered to enforce the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, Muscat’s iconic tourist hub is stirring back to life.
There is some activity in its many alleyways, but only just. Business is disappointingly poor. Not all shops have reopened and sales attendants eagerly await customers, wooing passers-by.
Standing in front of his Handicraft Corner on the corniche, Irfan laments the fact that since reopening, there has been no business from tourists while response from local customers is poor. “We are hoping sales will pick up with the start of the new year,” he said, adding that he expects little or no business in the next few months.
The decision to open now has come at a time which is incidentally off season for most businesses in the souq. Having lost the best part of the year’s season, Abdul Qader, who runs a readymade garments shop, is hopeful of the situation improving by the end of the year. “We are spending from our pockets for daily expenses for now,” Qader revealed.
It couldn’t be worse for salesman Sultan. He doesn’t mince words. “Business is ‘taban’,” he says. “We used to make sales of around RO200 per day before the pandemic. Now, we are not even making RO1.”
Like Qader and many others in Muttrah, Sultan is hopeful. “Allah kareem, in the coming months we will do good business. Inshallah!”
Sultan’s loss in earnings appears crippling and he’s not the only one. Business is trickling back for them, though not fast enough. Looking on expectantly for customers in his toy shop, Ismail said, “After sitting the whole day we make around RO15. It’s not even sufficient to cover our daily expenses.”
Despite dismal sales, the reopening of the souq was a relief. But it brought with it another worry. “Now since our shop is open, our landlord might insist on paying the due rent,” Ismail says anxiously.
He attributes 80 per cent of his business to cruise ship tourists.
“If cruises don’t start visiting Muscat in the near future, it will be big a problem for all of us,” he declares.
A few shops away from Ismail’s toy shop, Kishor J sits forlorn in his silver jewellery shop. He says there are no retail sales and his wholesale business is also down by 80 per cent compared to 2019.
“But after being locked down for five months, it is better to open the shop rather than sit at home. At least we are earning something to take care of our daily requirements,” he says.
He believes the reopening of the airport will bring some relief but for him, too, the main business comes from cruise ship tourists.
At Vijaykumar Deepchand’s spice shop, business is down by 70 per cent compared to last year. He, too, is banking on the next few months for the situation to improve.
“Our main customers are cruise ship tourists. The opening of the airport will not help business at Muttrah Souq much. But businesses have been affected everywhere in the world. We are also hoping it will pick up slowly in coming months,” he repeated the common refrain these days.
(Text and photos by Syed Fasiuddin)