Colin Nagy, head of strategy at Fred & Farid, a global advertising agency, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality, innovation, and business travel. "On Experience" dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across hospitality, aviation, and beyond. You can read all of his columns here.
One of the purest hospitality experiences I had last year didn’t come at a brand name luxury resort. It happened in the middle of the Empty Quarter, a vast, open stretch of desert that encompasses 250,000 square miles of southern Arabia. T.E. Lawrence notably referred to it as “the great unsolved question of geography.”
I was traveling in the Middle East, and on a whim returned to Oman. I had been before, but merely scratched the surface and made it a point to get outside of the predictable hits that you do the first few times you visit a country. This time, I flew into Salalah, a region of the country known for its whimsical and uncharacteristic green season in the midst of a very scorching summer for the region. I hired a guide that was recommended and set of on a four hour trip into the desert. We stopped, picked up some provisions, gassed up the white Land Cruiser, and drove far and far into the desert, outside of cellular coverage.
A friend told me about the idea of “thin spaces” where you feel closer to the heavens. The desert fits that experience. The acoustics were incredible. In a world bombarded with the hectic sounds of cities around the world, this was a perfect, relaxing stillness. When we drove into the desert, a guide talked about how it was uncharacteristically cold and warned us.
After a dinner cooked over a simple fire made with foraged wood, I spent a frigid night, not entirely bothered given the sublime surroundings. The next morning was the most dramatic sunrise, and with it, the light and warmth returned slowly, rejuvenating my body. My guide prepared a simple breakfast, a sort of Indian flatbread cooked with olive oil, with eggs and simple accouterment. We talked about his life in Oman, and how the country had changed and progressed. Being of similar ages, we remarked on the incredible progress of the nation regarding the quality of life, housing, and general governance.
This experience in the desert was something that will be imprinted in my mind forever. The power of nature, the surreal quality of desolate places, the warmth and hospitality of an Omani guide. I remarked that though most of the world is about “instagram experiences” and accumulating social capital, this was one of the most interesting, sincere and real travel experiences and something that stays in the mind and heart.
We read so much about the Middle East regarding revolution, instability, reform programs in Saudi and potential election meddling from the UAE. But for many Western travelers, they haven’t visited and seen the region with their own eyes. Sometimes it is just not on the hit list. Sometimes it is cost prohibitive. Sometimes misunderstanding about norms and cultures act as a deterrent. Sometimes the wrong side of “my friend my friend” style haggling acts as a built-in deterrent.
But as I reflected on my trip, I thought about how modern Oman is an incredible entry point for people wanting to spend time in the Middle East. It is geographically quite diverse, with incredible amounts of terrain: from beaches that look like Santa Barbara to wadis, to the incredible canyons and altitude of the green mountains, to the desert as mentioned above. In a short amount of time, in a car, you can experience all of this, including the green, misty hills of Salalah in late June to September in Monsoon season.
The country is peaceful, has infrastructure that would probably put some crumbling parts of the U.S. to shame, no inflamed sectarian tensions (Sunni and Shia get along), and general national hospitality and gentleness that is welcoming to visitors. And unlike the Emirates or other oil rich neighbors, the Omanis are present in culture: they drive the cabs, work at the hotels, build their businesses and are generally accessible and friendly as opposed to the more insular and foreigner weary Bedouin culture.
The country recently launched a new airport hub (a considerable improvement from its predecessor), aiming to grab some of the influence that their geography brings, as well as bolstering their domestic airline, Oman Air. There continues to be an investment, with Oman Hotels and Tourism to invest about $260 million in building 10 hotels in Oman by 2021. The upcoming three- and four-star hotels will have a total of 2,000 guest rooms.
The current incarnation of tourism is undoubtedly sun worshipping Europeans visiting the beachside resorts of Muscat, notably the Six Senses and the Chedi. But more travelers are richly rewarded when they set farther afield. While more four-stars are welcome and good for business, some of the most sincere ways to see the country are by just renting a car or hiring local guides.
A few former British SAS soldiers set up an outfit that takes tourists far afield in the country for short two-day excursions, or something longer and custom. The Anantara and Allila in the Green Mountains offer beautiful, incredible vistas of the country’s version of the Grand Canyon. But as with all safe, adventure spaces like Oman, sometimes people are best rewarded by just getting in a car, doing some due diligence, and driving on the open road.
As evidenced by the vast, undeveloped tracts of land — I kept squinting for hotels under development — as I drove westward from Salalah, the country is still in its tourism infancy, with a ton of potential to turn into a destination that helps open up the Middle East for all kinds of travelers from places far afield.