By: Zain al Tauqi

MUSCAT: Local tour operators are promoting self-drive tours in an effort to make visiting Oman more affordable for tourists.

Speaking about this trend, an official from Mark Tours said, “This season, we’re selling more self-drive packages than ever before. Self-drive sales have overtaken conventional round trips with guides.”

He said the main reason for this was cost. “By not having tourist guide rates and accommodation factored into the price of packages, it makes Oman more affordable for visitors. The typical self-drive clients are European couples. The formula would have been difficult to sell five or ten years ago, but Oman has a world-class road network, it is known to be a safe place as far as crime is concerned, GPS is installed in vehicles, and a good itinerary is handed to the tourists.”

According to an official from National Travel and Tourism, self-drive tours have outsold conventional tours for the first time this year. “Customers can save upto 30 per cent by not having a tour guide. With the help of GPS, good roads, and signage leading to places of interest, more tourists are opting to go without a guide,” he said.

“While we continue to provide accompanying guides and drivers according to the client’s needs, demand is increasing for highly specialised guides for a short duration. For example, experienced guides can join to cross the desert or for hikes in mountainous areas,” he said.

Musallam al Habsi, owner, QTT-Anwar International too said safety in Oman is a big reason why independent tours are catching on. “We introduced the self-drive formula four seasons ago, and it’s proving to be very popular with European tourists. Self-drives shouldn’t be seen as something that takes away work from tour guides. It’s just another option offered to tourists. Big groups and people who are here for a short time prefer to have guides, whereas people who have a week or more to visit the country tend to prefer the independence that comes with self-drives.”

Speaking about the new trend, tour guide Said al Harthy said, “It’s a very good news. It means that first and foremost, Oman is a safe country and people don’t require a local companion to travel here. Not every country offers self-drives as an option. The decision to introduce self-drives wasn’t taken lightly by companies, and it is a milestone in Oman’s tourism development.”

Abdullah Mohammed al Mamary, a guide said, “I freelance as a tour guide during winters. This season hasn’t been as busy as the last one. It could be because of the increasing popularity of self-drive tours. I believe people who want to experience Oman should opt for a guide, as it provides an insight into the local culture.” Austrian couple Jens and Steffi Knaus who took a self-drive across Oman over six days had no complaints.

“The car was delivered to us at our hotel, and we had a very thorough programme to follow,” said Jens, “At first, we were a bit apprehensive as our English is not fluent and we don’t speak Arabic, but we found the roads to be on par with European roads, petrol stations were plentiful, staff at the hotels and camps where we stayed during the tour was very helpful.”

They said that the guide provided for the Sharqiyah Sands leg of their trip was very knowledgeable and “we spoke at length about Oman”. “We had been wanting to visit this country for a long time, but it is an expensive destination. When we found out self-drive tours were being organised, we immediately made arrangements as the price difference is substantial,” added Jens.