Conde Nast Traveller and The Huffington Post recommend Oman as one of the must-visit destinations in 2013. Though the sultanate is a high-end destination, enterprising individuals have made room to accommodate the needs of budget travellers, some even offering the authentic Omani experience. Definitions vary, so call them guesthouses, B&Bs (bed and brea-kfast) or homestays, but there are plenty of takers for the Mi Casa Su Casa experience. Many owners chose not to speak with TheWeek saying the Ministry of Tourism hasn't been receptive to the B&B concept. There are gui-delines only for hotels, they said.
Homestays and B&Bs are popular the world over as a means to increase revenue but Oman is yet to warm up to the concept. Yakoob al Abri has been in the business for four years now. When holidays saw his house teeming with friends and relatives, Yakoob's father Ahmed toyed with the idea of opening their homes to tourists. “He called it Old Misfah House and roped in my brothers Humaid, Hamed and Naif to help. Visitors arrived mainly by word of mouth publicity. It was very encouraging. We went official in 2010.” Based on a register Yakoob maintains, he said nearly 3,000 people have visi-ted the Al Abri family's village of Misfat al Abryeen in two years.
A licence would complete the pretty picture of a community helping the tourism economy. But if only the powers that be would acknowledge their existence. Several trips to the Ministry of Tourism have only yielded a promise that he will get the document coveted by him and several other B&B owners. Yakoob has no idea when. “I guess even the ministry is new to this concept. We have approached the authorities numerous times. We also got the go-ahead informally from them.”
The owner of one B&B, on condition of anonymity, said, “I hope the ministry develops rules for B&Bs to function. They obviously know we exist. Our details are available on the Internet which is how our guests find us. Our customers include families and businessmen who say hotels become predictable after a while whereas no two B&Bs are the same. People ask specifically for such services because they are available the world over, so why not here? I am prepared to speak with the authority concerned, even pay the necessary fee if the ministry can guide us.”
Oman's mountainous terrain draws adventure sport aficionados in droves. Many are also keen on living in B&Bs while here. Some rely on tour companies like Bahwan Travel Agencies for help. “Oman is a high-budget destination. So most enquiries are for luxury hotels. But there are at least 30-40 bookings from European tourists for guesthouses every year. They want a first-hand experience of Omani culture,” said Lakshminarayan who handles in-bound tours for the company. Jocelyn LC for another tour operating company - Oman Geo Tours - said, “Initially it was less than 20 bookings in the peak season. But now there is a rise in popularity of guesthouses, especially among Europeans.”
Christopher Heywood came to the sultanate 17 years back and it was his love for the outdoors that inspired him to team up with his Omani partners to start Nomad Tours. Not much later, Nomad Guesthouse was born out of necessity. “In the beginning, we did not intend to offer accommodation. But people found the cost of our tours plus accommodation outside simply too much. We were not attracting business. So there was no alternative but to offer value accommodation.” He and wife Lorna, who has a background in hospitality from the UK, have been so successful with their guesthouse in Azaiba that plans are on to open franchises around the country. “The huge demand for value accommodation must be realised if tourism is expected to grow,” Christopher said.
While promotion is largely left to the owners - most B&Bs are lis-ted on popular travel websites - Yakoob has also tied-up with some travel agencies in the city. Christopher puts his faith in the feedback from websites instead. “Some tour companies mark up the prices which puts off customers. We believe we are only as good as our last review.” The four year old Nomad Guesthouse won the Tripadvisor Traveller's Choice Award in 2012 and 2013 under the B&Bs and inns category. Rave reviews and ratings on the website run into pages.
Yakoob's guests insist on staying in the old houses, around 300-500 years old, once inhabited by his family. The village of 60 houses comprises two families and their relatives. Banana plantations, lemon orchards and olive farms bordered by a falaj, a traditional market and a view of Jebel Shams add to the charm. “We invite guests to live the way we do, starting with kahwa as a welcome drink after they arrive in the evening. Vehicles are parked outside the village. They walk through the lanes to the homestay, allowing them glimpses into our lifestyle. There's no Internet or television. They are served a traditional dinner cooked by our womenfolk and go to bed early. Breakfast is served by 7.30 next morning before they set out for a tour of the area.”
Guests find the location convenient for mountaineering and trekking. There's a mode of transport from the past too - donkey rides, on request. A lucky few are invited to family weddings. “When they live with us, they are like family,” Yakoob said, adding that women guests are now taking a fancy to wearing henna on their hands. The ladies in the Al Abri family are more than willing to oblige by drawing the designs.
October to May remains the busiest months and accommodation is priced at RO25 a night, including dinner and breakfast at Old Misfah House. Normally priced at RO45 a night, Christopher's guesthouse also offers discounts in the summer months.
But bizarre requests and heartwarming experiences are all in a day's work. Yakoob recalls a group which insisted on a tour at 11pm. “The whole village was deserted. We did it anyway, using flashlights.” Chris and Lorna unsuspectingly played Cupid after two guests they introduced to each other later got engaged. In a perfect world, things couldn’t be rosier and B&B owners remain hopeful.