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