Lonely Planet guide reveals Saudi Arabia’s tourism treasures

There are dive shops across the country, especially in Umluj, where you will meet local divers and instructors. (Tharik Hussain)
Updated 13 October 2019

Lonely Planet guide reveals Saudi Arabia’s tourism treasures

  • For its latest regional edition, the popular travel guide sent a researcher to explore the Kingdom for the first time
  • The new edition goes into detail on previously covered sites and touches on remote and never-before-covered areas

LONDON: Saudi Arabia has been designated “the final frontier of tourism” by Lonely Planet, one of the world’s largest travel guidebook publishers. The sixth edition of the company’s Oman, UAE & Arabian Peninsula travel guide was published this month, with an extensively updated section on Saudi Arabia, which announced its newly simplified e-visa late September. 

Tharik Hussain, who wrote the section on Saudi Arabia, told Arab News that it is the most-comprehensive guide yet to the attractions of the Kingdom.




Tharik Hussain spent around two months in Saudi Arabia researching its numerous tourism and heritage sites for the book. (Tharik Hussain)  

“It’s a good time to make sure that the guidebook was brought up to speed and reflected what is really on the ground. If you look at the previous editions, coverage was minimal because Saudi Arabia was ‘the impossible country’ to get in to,” he said, adding that while Muslims could previously acquire a visa for pilgrimage, it was not easy to travel around the rest of the country.

Hussain, a Bangladesh-born British Muslim who previously lived in Jeddah, spent around two months in Saudi Arabia researching its numerous tourism and heritage sites for the book. He acknowledged that, despite its hefty expansion, the updated guide still only covers a small amount of what is available in such a vast country, but said it covers “all the compass points and major towns” and “serves as a foundation for the Kingdom’s global tourism, which can be built upon.”




Farasan Islands is historically home to wealthy pearl divers and merchants. (Tharik Hussain)

This is the first time in recent history that Lonely Planet has sent one of its researchers to travel across the Kingdom, and the writer claims it is the first time any foreigner has explored the entire country this century.

“I was turning up in places where I felt I was the only outsider who had ever been (to) that area, in the far reaches of the corners of Saudi, like Haql in the northwest from where you can see the Jordanian and Egyptian border, to the huge oasis town of Al Hofuf in the Eastern Province, I went to the Farasan Islands in the deeper south, I was in Dammam and Hail, I went to the edge of the Empty Quarter and the Red Sea. It was pretty epic,” Hussain said.




The rub' al Khali empty quarter desert aerial view. (Getty)

“I think one of the most amazing strands that rarely gets spoken about — and Saudi Arabia is really onto something if it knows how to tap into it — is Red Sea diving,” Hussain added.

There are dive shops across the country, especially in Jeddah, Tabuk, Umluj and Yanbu, where you will meet local divers and instructors (including female instructors), he explained, who mention “the pristine and almost virgin territory, because there’s never been any mass tourism. Some of these places have amazing flora and fauna and rare creatures, like the whale shark and the hammerhead shark.”

The Haramain High Speed Railway that transports pilgrims to the Holy Cities was opened last year and several new rail and metro systems are also under construction, along with new roads to accommodate the expected boom in tourism, as Saudi Arabia aims to challenge the UAE as the Gulf’s main tourist destination.




The Hijaz Railway Station transported pilgrims to the Holy cities. (Getty)

Hussain said: “Clearly they’re working hard and you see lots of infrastructure in a lot of tourism sites, especially the really amazing UNESCO World Heritage ones that date back thousands of years.”

In February, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched tourism projects in AlUla, an area in northwest Saudi Arabia so rich in cultural and natural history that it has been dubbed “an open-air museum.” 

Those projects include the Sharaan Nature Reserve and a resort designed by renowned French architect Jean Nouvel, who designed Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The guide also sheds light on the ancient city of Madain Saleh, the Kingdom’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, which lies within AlUla. The city was built more than 2,000 years ago by the Nabataeans —Arab people native to northern Arabia and the Southern Levant.




Farasan Islands is historically home to wealthy pearl divers and merchants. (Tharik Hussain)

The new edition of Lonely Planet goes into more detail on the sites that it has covered in the past, but also touches on remote and never-before-covered areas, including the Farasan Islands, which were historically home to wealthy pearl divers and merchants. 

“Most of the houses are in semi-ruins but are being slowly refurbished,” Hussain said. “The architecture is completely different to anything else (in) the rest of Saudi Arabia and (it) really blew me away. You could see the style had been influenced by the Islamic art and architecture of places like India, which the pearl merchants would have been trading with.”

The southern Asir region is included in Lonely Planet for the first time. “Asir is the only place in the whole of Saudi Arabia where they have forests and these amazing mountain villages that are completely different from the rest of Saudi Arabia,” Hussain said.

Asir National Park is home to the Kingdom’s highest peak, Mount Sawda, part of the Sarawat Mountains. It stands more than 3,000 meters above sea level, with cable cars, viewing areas covered in a juniper-type forest, and several picnic spaces.




Asir National Park is home to the Kingdom’s highest peak, Mount Sawda. (Tharik Hussain)

“All around that region and tucked away in the valleys are these beautiful villages of stone houses that look like they’ve been carved into the face of the mountain. They are absolutely stunning,” Hussain said, adding that many of them were uninhabited and used as tourist attractions, like the ‘Hanging Village’ of Al-Habala, which used to be accessed solely via ropes.

The guide also highlights Jeddah’s old town of Al-Balad — another UNESCO World Heritage site — as a must-see destination.

The district’s buildings are made from Red Sea coral and feature beautiful hanging “mashrabiyas” — huge wooden lattice balconies that allow cool air to flow in but keep the sun and prying eyes out.




Coral reefs decorate the Red Sea in Jeddah. (AFP)

There are also the ruins of the Hijaz railway that was built by the Ottomans to transport pilgrims betweeen Damascus and Madinah. Remnants of the project, including overturned locomotives, can be found scattered across the country and some of the bigger old stations have been reappropriated. Those in Tabuk and Madinah have been turned into museums.

For Hussain, the chance to describe these sites at the time of such a highly anticipated change in the Kingdom’s tourism sector was a unique opportunity.

“Saudi Arabia is so diverse in what it has to offer and, generally, it’s an absolutely amazing place to travel around,” he said. “I hope this guide shows just how much potential it has as a tourist destination.”


Global stars shine at Saudi leisure forum

Updated 14 October 2019

Global stars shine at Saudi leisure forum

  • “It (Saudi Movies) will bring Saudis closer to the world and the world closer to Saudi,” Shahrukh Khan 

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia took another step toward establishing its place on the global entertainment map with a major industry event in Riyadh on Sunday.

The Joy Forum19 brought together entertainment promoters and pioneers from around the world, along with global stars such as Indian actor and film producer Shah Rukh Khan; Hong Kong martial artist, actor, film director Jackie Chan and Belgian actor and martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme.

The event was organized by the General Entertainment Authority (GEA), which signed several important agreements on the day, including a financing guarantee program for small and medium-sized enterprises.

Participants are ushered in on the first day of the Joy Forum19 event in Riyadh. (Social media photo)

“Our message is for both, locally and internationally. Me and my generation suffered a lot, we had lots of time on our hands,” GEA chairman Turki Al-Sheikh said at the event.

“Today you are witnessing things we have never had in Saudi Arabia. We have 300,000 visitors to our events, and our sales have hit 80 percent.

“Saudi Arabia has never seen anything like Riyadh Season, we have over 400 sponsors, which is unprecedented.”

Al-Sheikh announced that the authority had named a stadium after singer Mohammed Abdo, the “Artist of Arabs,” and another after Abu Baker Salim, the father of Khaleeji music. 


READ MORE: Three MoUs signed at opening day of Joy Forum19 in Riyadh



Drunken master

The actors expressed what it meant to be movie stars and how wide-reaching their influence could be.

Jackie Chan recalled that when he was a new actor, he often acted like a drunken fighter until he realized that he has a responsibility towards younger fans. 

Jackie Chan: no longer a "drunken master". (AN photo by Basheer Saleh)

“All over the world I keep drinking and fighting (in films).  I realized that I made drunken master cool — so I stopped,” he said. One of Chan's most popular movies was the 1978 action comedy martial arts film "Drunken Master".

“When you’re 20 you don’t have this inner thought — anything that makes the audience laugh you do, but later on especially (when I went) to Africa so many years ago — they started doing the drunken style — the children look up to me. So, I realized we have a responsibility to the children so all those years I corrected those actions: no dirty comedy words or action,” he said.

He attributed his awareness in being responsible for the content he produces to the fans. “I’m really thankful to the fans in making me a good actor.”

Chan spoke about his experience in acting martial arts in both the United States and Asia. “I realized we have two different markets one for America another for Asia. They are totally two different things.”

The safety measures the US takes for stunts is very impeccable making sure of the wellbeing of the actor comes first. However, in Asia it’s a different story, “In Asia when I want to do a stunt, I roll, jump (and then go to the) hospital, he said laughingly.

“It’s so difficult sometimes in the USA so many rules- Jackie Chan movies: NO RULES!” he said and received applause from the audience.

 

Good start

Jean Claude Van Damme gave a shout out and a big thank you to all his “brother and sisters from Saudi Arabia,” He said he got a royal treatment fit for “Kings and Queens”. He went on to reveal that his hotel room at the Ritz Carlton Riyadh was so big he could easily “roller-skate” in it.

Jean Claude Van Damme: "Let's do a movie together". (AN photo by Basheer Saleh)

“I’m honored to be invited here. I know it’s your first time to do this event, but I know it will have a very bright future and I hope next year you will invite more people,” he said.

He said he may not be a “good talker” but expressed his joy at being in Saudi Arabia saying. “I’m happy to be here and I hope to have more connection later with the audience.”

Van Damme remarked how that in every country in the world you have treasure actors and movies with different cultures, “In the Middle East I don’t know what the taste will be, but I know they love American, Asian and Indian movies. They have a broad taste. (Saudi Arabia) should do a movie with all of us together!”

 

Crossing barriers

Sharukh Khan emphasized the importance of every country telling their story through movies; “As long as we are telling the story in whatever language it doesn’t matter. Cinema crosses all barriers.”
 

Shahrukh Khan: "I'd audition for a Saudi movie". (Social media photo)

With the opening of Saudi Arabia to the world and Cinemas, he said, “I can’t wait to talk about the Saudi films...It will bring Saudis closer to the world and the world closer to Saudi.”

“The stories that you tell should talk about goodness and people should be engaged with the content and it should bring them together. People want to laugh and sadly have to cry, to be entertained and to feel.”

Sharukh noted that Saudi Arabia has started to make movies and he’s watched the King Faisal movie, "Born a King". 

“You’ll always find gems in all movie industries and I think there’s are gems in Saudi and as a matter of fact one of the things I’d like to do is audition for a Saudi movie … Please give me an opportunity!” he said, eliciting a thunderous applause from the audience.


Red carpet

Abdulaziz AlMuzaini, co-founder and CEO of the Saudi Arabian Myrkott Animation Studio; gave a heartfelt thanks full of gratitude to King Salman and the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, saying: “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t have dreamed of this moment or this panel.”

Some of the celebrities invited to the event walk the red carpet. (AN photo by Basheer Saleh)

Lebanese actor Wahid Jalal, who was the voice of Long John Silver in Treasure Island, came onstage for the opening of the event. “Children love heroes and they try to imitate them,” he said. 

He also delighted the crowd by performing Silver’s famous laugh.

Some of the celebrities who walked down the red carpet were American actor Jason Momoa, star of Aquaman; Amr Adeeb, Balqis Fathi, Yusra, Boosy Shalabi, Lojien and Aseel Omran, Mohammed Hamaki, Nawal AlZoghbi, Talal Salama, Ahlam Al-Shamsi, Hussain AlJismi, Suad Abdulla, Ibrahem Alharbi, Tariq Alali and Abdulnaser Darweesh.

The gala dinner hosted 500 guests and was a private event, but the red carpet captured the essence of where Saudi is moving to culturally.