While tourism and culture go hand in hand, a “third actor” has been identified by experts who had gathered in Oman recently for the UNWTO and UNESCO Conference. Community is the third actor.
Communities around the cultural sites used by the tourism industry are the current focus. In the future, tourism has to be a respectable culture, which means it should be integrated within the local community and beneficial to them.
“Local community cannot be used as an area where things are made in a ready-made fashion. On the contrary, the local community must be involved and has to be a part in the making of “tourism products” for it to be defined as a cultural product,” said Francesco Bandarin, UNESCO Assistant Director-General on Culture.
Today, there is good news on the tourism front. It is seeing an expansion never seen before. According to Bandarin, this means people have more free time, money to travel and more willingness to explore experiences.
“It is also an indicator of the well-being of the planet. I think tourism is the only industry that has not suffered. In the past ten years, the world has gone through a bit of turmoil, but not tourism,” says Bandarin.
The industry has been growing five per cent every year. It’s an indicator of strength, but now this strength has to be harnessed to maintain the very object that is tourism: nature and culture.
What would be the future of tourism if nature or culture is destroyed? None. “So, we have to create a system in which these two systems are mutually beneficial. I think it is coming to the surface and the tourism industry is more aware of this role. That is the role it should play as corporate sector to maintain the very object they sell to their clients,” says Bandarin.
For the UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Culture, the visit to Bahla Fort, Frankincense Museum and sites in Salalah was an “exceptional experience”.
“I know I have just scratched the surface. I will have more time in my next vacation to go up to the mountains of Jabal Akhdar.”
All of the sites mentioned by Bandarin have strong links to culture and communities.
At the moment, Ahmed al Mahrouqi, who has a personal mission to promote traditional lifestyles to the younger generation, is in the Sharqiya Sands, teaching camel riding to anyone who wants to learn and meeting tourists to promote the Oman experience.
He and his friends have been in the desert for the last few days. “It is a great opportunity to introduce the desert culture to visitors. This is how our forefathers used to travel, whether crossing the land, settlements or the desert.”
All this leads to sustainable development.
“When we speak of sustainable development, we speak not just about the environmental, but also social and cultural, as well as economic aspects of tourism,” says Amr Abdel Ghaffar, Regional Director for the Middle East, World Trade Organisation.
Tourism has become an important sector economically recognised all over the world. It is an activity that involves at least, as far as we can measure, a significant portion of world’s population — 1.2 billion international tourists out of seven billion. “It means one-sixth of the population is travelling outside the country, not to forget those who are travelling inside the country.”
“If sufficiently educated about tourism, this group of people can truly become ambassadors of tourism, sustainability, peace and prosperity. That is our mission and our effort is a long term one,” he said.
Asking him about the destinations in Oman he wants to visit, he says: “Oman has a variety of options. I have seen impressive pictures, the traditions and the people. The ‘Beauty has an address’ slogan is true in the case of Oman.”
While there are established tourism operators, there are members of the community who are raring to take up the opportunity especially in areas like Jabal Akhdar, Wakan, Khasab, Sharqiyah, to name a few.
As for Ahmed al Mahrouqi, the veteran desert traveller popularly known as the ‘Omani Traveller’, he has been busy explaining to the visitors how to prepare camels for riding, how to prepare Omani coffee and some traditional food as well as how to enjoy the desert sky at night, including knowing names of the stars.