Salalah: Europe’s winter escape and Gulf’s summer respite

Sunday 08/05/2016
Taqa Beach near Salalah in southern Oman

Salalah, Oman - There is no need to travel far to escape the sizzling summer heat of Gulf Arab countries. Located 1,000km south of Muscat, Salalah, is a unique spot on the Ara­bian peninsula blessed with a cool climate and green scenery from July to September, drawing large numbers of Gulf nationals and for­eign visitors.
While temperatures hit 40-50 de­grees Celsius across the Gulf region, Salalah, in Dhofar governorate close to the border with Yemen, basks in mist with temperature not exceed­ing the 20s due to the monsoon, called khareef, which is Arabic for “autumn”.
“The mist covering the whole re­gion revives the dry wadis (valleys), turning them lush green in khareef and the temperature becomes very pleasant, magnetising our brothers from the Gulf,” said Sheikh Ali Gha­was, a Salalah native.
Salalah’s residents used to move down during khareef to coastal ar­eas and the low plains from the mountains around the city where they spent the rest of the year be­cause of thick fog.
“During that season it becomes dangerous to let our animals free to graze in the wadis because the terrain becomes very slippery and visibility drops to less than a few metres,” Ghawas explained.
The population is mostly concen­trated in the city, which has leaped in the past decade from being a laid-back, small port for exporting the region’s famous frankincense to a popular destination for Gulf na­tionals and expatriates.
In addition to its temperate cli­mate, Salalah boasts miles of sandy beaches, archaeological sites and an old market, Souk al-Haffa, where traditional Omani items from cloth­ing to gold and silver handicrafts and a wide variety of frankincense are on display. During the Salalah Tourism Festival, in July and Au­gust, visitors can become acquaint­ed with traditional Dhofari dancing.
The waves of the Indian Ocean, which are bigger during khareef, have been attracting surfers as well as sea lovers who can bask on long stretches of unspoiled sandy beaches.
A few kilometres east of the city is Taqa beach, a favourite spot for Italian surfer Alessandro Guidoni.
“I found it superb with its sandy beach and great waves,” said Gui­doni. “One day, I was so lucky the waves were perfect and I was prac­tically surfing with schools of dol­phins, some 50 metres from the shoreline.”
Known as The Land of Frankin­cense, Salalah was an important trading hub for the aromatic gum in ancient times. Frankincense was exported from Khor Rori, a natural harbour about 40km east of Sala­lah.
The ruins of the fortified ancient port city of Sumhuram, built in the Khor Rori area between the fifth and third centuries BC, is one of Salalah’s most visited archaeologi­cal sites.
With its new international air­port, designed to serve 1 million passengers in the first phase and 6 million once completed, offering direct weekly flights linking Sala­lah to several major European cities and the construction of high-end resorts, the place is being groomed to becoming a prime tourist desti­nation in the Gulf region.
The Fanar Hotel and Residences inaugurated in February as part of a development plan carried out by Muriya, a joint venture between Egypt’s Orascom Development Holdings and Omran, the tourism development arm of the Omani government.
The 218-room facility was the third to be developed by Muriya in Salalah, raising the total room availability in Muriya hotels to 700.
According to the National Centre for Statistics, a record 500,000 tour­ists visited the governorate from June to August 2015, a 21% increase from the same period in 2014.
For Muriya Chief Executive Of­ficer Ahmed Dabbous, developing Salalah into a year-round prime destination is still in the first stages.
“We still have a lot of work to do. Over the next few months, we will be starting several interesting de­velopment projects including the construction of a water park that is scheduled to open by end of 2017,” Dabbous said.
“Muriya plans to invest $500 mil­lion for completing high-end hotels and other facilities in two major destinations in Oman. Salalah is one of them.”
The rest of the year is no less busy than during khareef in Salalah. Dur­ing winter, tourists, mostly from Europe, flock to the city, fleeing cold weather at home. In khareef, visitors seeking a respite from the sweltering heat come mainly from the region.