Until recently Oman was one of the hardest countries in the world to get into. For the casual traveler it was so restricted it was virtually off the map, a strange, shadowy, half-mythical desert kingdom lurking on the rim of the 20th century.
Periodically, as though tossing coins into a wishing well - and with about the same level of expectation - I would send off a visa application. But the Omanis never replied and, in truth, I would have been astonished if they had. Their territory with its elegant little slave-traders' capital, Muscat, would probably remain off-limits forever.Then, a few months ago, barely credible rumors began circulating to the effect that Oman was admitting tourists.
Inquiries revealed they weren't admitting many (and all were, in effect, hand-picked), but the curtain was being lifted and, soon afterwards, I managed to slip under.
In England, an experienced Omani hand had tried to put the place into perspective:
"By modern standards it's only 19 years old," he said. "In 1970 it was still medieval, with 10 miles of asphalt road, one hospital and virtually no education. Smoking or wearing glasses in the street were arrestable offenses. There were 30 foreigners, but only the doctor was allowed into the interior. Then the conservative old sultan was deposed by his son, Qaboos, and today they have 4,000 miles of asphalted roads, l6 hospitals, 30 major health centers and 250,000 children in full-time education. Oil paid for that, but now prices have dropped and they're feeling the pinch. That's why they're showing a cautious interest in tourism."
Oman offers the visitor a detached, low-key kind of welcome that leaves him, by and large, to his own devices.
But who are the Omanis?
Heading into Muscat, I became aware that many of the cars on the magnificent new motorway were being driven by Europeans. Mine was in the charge of an Indian who identified the men collecting motorway litter as Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and Pakistanis. The check-in clerk at the Al Bustan Palace Hotel was an Austrian. The man who took me to my room was a Palestinian and the woman who brought breakfast a Filipino.
Apart from a gimlet-eyed female immigration officer at the airport - who may have been Egyptian - I had still not knowingly met an Omani after three hours in the country. All I had come across were scouts from Oman's huge army of hired help.
The capital is made up of several undistinguished modern settlements and the tiny old town, Muscat. One of the prettiest pieces of real estate in the Middle East, its buildings sit, snug as eggs in a basket, among a circlet of rocky brown hills flanked by a pair of Portuguese forts. It looks clean, cool and welcoming, and I was unsurprised to learn that a 15th century traveler noted it to be a place where, "year by year the ships load up with fruit and horses. It is safe in every wind and possesses fresh water and a hospitable and sociable people who love strangers."
In Muscat, people kept urging me to visit Salala, Oman's second city down the coast near the Yemeni border. Salala had rain, coconuts and frankincense. It was the Garden of Eden, they said.
Well, not quite, though Salala had great charm: robust sea breezes, stupendous beaches, a pretty Corniche backed by dense, shadowy coconut groves, no malaria and scarcely any tourists.
Down on the coast, among the ruins of Samhuram, an ancient all-weather frankincense port allegedly built by the Queen of Sheba, we disturbed a snake drowsing in the sun.
Those wishing to see the wild trees from which the frankincense is tapped may call first at Job's Tomb, a small domed building containing the mortal remains of the man who refused to take no for an answer.
Oman may be admitting tourists, but any application to visit remains a lottery. You won't be accepted until the government has issued you with an NOC, or No Objection Certificate, and it won't do that if it is uncertain about the profile that emerges from your visa application. Those likely to be successful will be middle-aged, middle-class and well-to-do. Social undesirables like the unemployed and budget travelers won't get in, and neither will anyone under the age of 25. Or 27. Or even 28 (depending on which government spokesman you're quoting).
Oman is a beautiful, uniquely interesting country, well worth spending time in. But a policy which declares it out of bounds to a whole generation of travelers could have repercussions. The youngsters banned today may choose to impose their own boycott when Oman judges them to be old and rich enough to come in.