Crumbling Portuguese forts and tranquil fishing villages line the coast’s secluded shorelines, magnificent desert dunes and oases mottle the interior and traditionally garbed Bedouins can be spied drifting through the spice-filled souqs. Best of all, with their chunk of the Arabian Gulf having long served as a stopover point to centuries of merchant traders and explorers, the Omanis make for consummate hosts, ever keen to show off their country’s wares.
1. Customs regulations
Visitors are allowed to import up to two liters (and not more than two bottles) of alcoholic beverages (non-Muslims only) and a “reasonable” quantity of tobacco. A yellow fever vaccination certificate is required for travelers arriving within six days from infected areas in Africa and South America. Travelers carrying prescription drugs should take a letter from their doctor stating that they are obliged to take this medicine.
UK-style sockets with three square pins are the norm. The country’s current runs at 240 volts AC, meaning that UK appliances will work without problem directly off the mains supply, although US appliances will probably require a transformer.
3. Entry requirements
Citizens of most countries, including the UK, US, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, require a visa to enter Oman.
Tourist visas can be bought on the spot on arrival at Muscat airport, costing 20 OR (£37/US$55) for a one-month visa. Pay for your visa at the Travelex counter first; staff will give you a receipt which you then present at the immigration desk (signed “Tourist Visa”). Only single-entry visas are available at the airport (despite what signs say); multiple-entry visas have to be applied for in advance online (see Omani embassies and consulates abroad). If you’re driving from the main part of Oman up to the Musandam peninsula through the UAE you’ll need to buy a new visa every time you cross an Omani border for details. Note that embassy websites aren’t well maintained, and the visa information and prices found on them may well be out of date; if in doubt, ring.
There are no serious health risks in Oman (unless you include the country’s traffic). All the main cities in the country are equipped with modern hospitals and well-stocked pharmacies. Tap water is safe to drink, while even the country’s cheapest cafés maintain good standards of food hygiene. One possible health concern is the heat. Summer temperatures regularly climb into the forty-degree Celsius range, making sunburn, heatstroke and acute dehydration a real possibility, especially if combined with excessive alcohol consumption. Stay in the shade, and drink lots of water.
Bilharzia is another possible risk if swimming in rock pools in the mountains.
There’s a decent number of internet cafés in some cities in Oman (Muscat, Salalah, Nizwa and Khasab, for example – all listed in the relevant guide chapters). Away from these places, however, it can be a real struggle to find anywhere to get online.
Internet access is also available in many mid-range and all top-end hotels, either via cable or wi-fi. Occasionally it’s free in these establishments but most often chargeable, often at extortionate rates (2–3 OR/hr is common).
If you really need to be online you might consider subscribing to the mobile internet service provided by Nawras (wwww.nawras.om), which uses a small modem that plugs into your computer’s USB port, giving you your own portable wi-fi system – but with prices starting from around 25 OR it’s a bit of an investment.
The country URL for Oman is “.om” – which looks confusingly like a typo for “.com”. If you find a .om address not working, try replacing it with .com, or vice versa.
For unlimited Wi-Fi on the go whilst travelling Oman, buy a Skyroam Solis, which works in 130+ countries at one flat daily rate, paid for on a pay-as-you-go basis. You can connect up to five devices at once. Prices start from as little as €5 a day.
Oman has an efficient and reliable modern postal service. Postcards and letters cost between 200bz and 400bz to Europe and North America, rising to around 5 OR for parcels weighing over 1kg, although if sending anything valuable you may prefer to use an international courier such as DHL or FedEx, who have offices in Muscat and Salalah. There are no reliable poste restante facilities in Oman. If you need to receive a letter or package, it’s best to have it delivered to your hotel (and to warn them in advance of its arrival).
The Omani currency is the rial (usually abbreviated “OR”, or sometimes “OMR”), subdivided into 1000 baiza (“bz”). Banknotes are denominated in 100, 200 and 500 baiza and in 1, 5, 10, 20 and 50 rials (there are two types of one-rial note, coloured either red or brown). Coins are denominated in 5, 10, 25 and 50 baiza. Exchange rates at the time of writing were 1 OR = £1.60, $2.60 and €1.85.
8. ATMs and banks
There are plentiful ATMs all over the country, virtually all of which accept foreign Visa and MasterCard’s, as well as numerous banks, all of which will change travelers’ cheques and foreign cash. Many more upmarket hotels will also change cash and travelers’ cheques, usually at poor rates.
9. Opening hours and public holidays
Oman runs on a basically Islamic schedule. The traditional working week runs from Saturday to Wednesday, although some businesses also open on a Thursday morning, while Friday serves as the Islamic holy day (equivalent to the Christian Sunday). Usual business hours are 8am–5pm; government offices open 8am–2pm. Banks are usually open Saturday to Wednesday 8am–noon and Thursday 8–11.30am. Shopping hours are slightly different. Shops in most souks generally open seven days a week, although most places remain closed on Friday mornings. Most places also shut down daily for an extended siesta from around noon or 1pm until 5 or 6pm, lending many smaller places a rather ghost-town ambience during the hot afternoon hours. Local cafés may stay open, although there’s unlikely to be much food available past around 1pm (more upmarket restaurants tend to stay open until 2 or 3pm, but then usually close until around 7pm). Things fire back into life as dusk approaches, usually remaining busy until 9 or 10pm. Museums tend to follow a similar pattern, opening Sunday to Wednesday from around 9 or 10am to 1pm and from 4 or 6pm to 7pm. Some remain closed for the whole of Thursday and Friday; others open, but only during the afternoon/evening. Forts broadly divide into two categories. Smaller forts tend to be open Saturday to Wednesday 8am–2pm; larger forts are generally open Saturday to Thursday 9am–4pm and Friday 8–11am.
Oman is a very photogenic country, although the often harsh light can play havoc with color and contrast – for the best results head out between around 7am and 9am in the morning, or after 4pm. Don’t take photographs of people without asking or you risk causing considerable offence, especially if taking photos of ladies without permission. In Arabic, “May I take you picture?” translates (roughly) as Mumkin sura, min fadlak? (to a man) or Mumkin sura, min fadlik? (to a woman). Men will probably be happy to oblige, women less so, while children of either sex will usually be delighted.
Smoking is not permitted inside cafés, restaurants, bars, malls, offices and other public areas – although it’s usually permitted on the outdoor terraces of bars and restaurants. Cigarettes are cheap; a pack of Marlboros, for example, costs under 1 OR..
Oman runs on Gulf Standard Time (GST). This is 4hr ahead of GMT (or 3hr ahead of British Summer Time), 9hr ahead of US Eastern Standard Time, 12hr ahead of US Pacific Time; 4hr behind Australian Western Standard Time, and 6hr behind Australian Eastern Standard Time. There is no daylight-saving in Oman.
There are no public toilets in Oman. If you get caught short, head to the nearest plausible-looking hotel, restaurant or café. Pretty much all tourist attractions, including museums and forts, also provide toilets. Most toilets in Oman are of Western-style sit-down design, although Asian-style squat toilets are also occasionally found.
14. Travelling with children
Children form a central part of Omani life: treasured, fussed-over and generally integrated into most social situations. Families are usually large, and even quite young children are habitually included in social gatherings and night-time excursions at an hour when their Western counterparts are tucked firmly up in bed. For visitors with children, this means that your kids will generally be welcomed wherever you go (except perhaps in a few of Muscat’s more exclusive restaurants and bars), and may well prove a bridge between you and the Omanis in whose company you happen to find yourself.
There are hardly any dedicated children’s attractions in Oman, except the Children’s Museum in Muscat, although kids will enjoy many of the country’s mainstream attractions. Exploring forts can be fun, while some of the less strenuous mountain walks (or parts of walks) may also appeal. Turtle-watching at Ras al Jinz is a guaranteed hit, as are dhow cruises amid the dolphins of Musandam. Various desert activities such as dune-bashing and camel-riding are also good for older kids.
The main child-related hazard in Oman is the sun. Children are particularly susceptible to the effects of sunburn and heatstroke and should be wrapped up carefully and made to drink plenty of fluids.
Outside Muscat, it can prove tricky to find supplies of nappies and other essential items for babies and toddlers. It’s best to bring everything you might need with you from home.
15. Food & Drink
Food in Oman is mainly a question of eating to live, rather than living to eat. The country’s culinary traditions offer an interesting blend of Arabian and Indian influences, although the stuff served up in most local cafés and restaurants generally consists of a predictable selection of shwarmas and biryanis, with maybe a few other Middle Eastern meze and grills or Indian curries. Honourable exceptions exist, of course, but outside Muscat, good places to eat are few and far between.
16. Culture in Oman
Foreigners are generally made to feel very welcome in Oman, although in return you’ll be expected to abide scrupulously by Omani cultural norms. This remains a deeply traditional – and in many ways very conservative – country, and despite its sometimes superficially westernized appearance and growing openness to tourists, old attitudes run extremely deep.
17. Dangers & Annoyances
Oman is a very safe country with low crime rates and people who go out of their way to help strangers. Take the usual precautions regarding walking late at night in unlit, urban areas. Dangers are related mostly to road use and natural events; in particular, watch out for:
high volumes of traffic accidents because of tailgating and speed
flash floods that can appear at great speed coursing along wadis (don't camp in the bottom of a wadi)
the isolation of many off-road destinations, and extreme summertime temperatures (particularly from May to October) which can quickly lead to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
18. Entry & Exit Formalities
Visas (OR5/20 for 10/30 days) are required for most nationalities and must be applied for in advance. Applications can be obtained through Omani embassies abroad or, more easily, online through the Royal Oman Police website (www.rop.gov.om). The visa should be printed, ready for presentation at the immigration desk on arrival at the airport or land border.
Greeting and giving In Oman, the left hand is reserved for ablutions and considered unclean. As such, it should never be used for touching others or giving things.
Public displays of affection Couples, regardless of sexual orientation, should avoid being overtly affectionate in public.
Clothing Westerners are often seen wandering around supermarkets or hotel foyers in shorts and strappy tops but this is considered highly disrespectful to local custom. Both men and women should cover knees and shoulders in public.
Driving It’s tempting when exploring off-road destinations to drive straight through the middle of villages. This is about as sensitive as taking a lorry through a neighbor’s garden at home. If you want to see the village, it’s better to park outside and walk in.
Rubbish Litter has become a major problem as even a banana skin does not biodegrade in the hot, dry climate. Please don't add to this sadly ever-growing problem
Tipping in Oman is not as widespread as it is elsewhere in the region and is uncommon in smaller establishments.
Hotels OR1 for baggage handling and room service; gratuity for cleaning staff is uncommon and discretionary.
Restaurants In large hotel restaurants, 10% is expected if a service fee hasn’t been included in the bill.
Taxis Tipping taxi drivers is discretionary.