DUBAI: Standing still and surveying the spectacular sights around him on his first hike, Ahmed Shata realized there was more to life than sitting in front of a screen all day.
For the 37-year-old Jeddah resident, the adventure started when a small group in his home city encouraged him to discover nature through hiking.
Now the triumphant feeling of reaching a target destination has inspired him to continue uncovering new trails while also building a business that encourages others to join him.
“The moment I reach the goal after a two, three or five-hour hike, I feel like I have done something, like I can fly,” Shata said. “I thought, ‘why not convert this to (something) commercial and let people enjoy what I am feeling?’”
Shata founded Jeddah Go Outdoors with a fellow hiker in 2014. The group aims to spread the spirit of adventure and inspire people to discover Saudi Arabia’s great outdoors.
A project that began with just three people joining the founders on the first hike has grown into a business with more than 30,000 clients.
The beauty of hiking is that it is an activity that is available to anyone, Shata told Arab News.
Hikers aged between eight and 60 join the trips, depending on the difficulty level. About 80 percent of the participants are women.
“I don’t know where all the men are,” he said.
Last month the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage announced a new tourist visa program and relaxed strict dress codes as part of plans to boost the country’s traditionally closed-off tourism industry and attract foreign investment.
The moves are part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 initiatives to broaden its economic activities and end its reliance on oil.
Contrary to perceptions, Saudi Arabia offers plenty of nature-rich destinations.
“We hear this a lot,” Shata said when asked about the country’s image as an arid desert. “Saudi Arabia is huge. We have mountains, beaches, islands, wadis, greenery; we have a lot of things.
“There are places like the Maldives in Amlaj, greenery and rain like in Malaysia in Asir, mountains like Kilimanjaro near Abha and Taif, volcanic craters in Wahba — you can see the world inside Saudi Arabia.”
Shata, who works at a telecom company during the week, said he lines up new spots for his weekend excursions using Google Maps. “We study maps and find places to explore,” he said.
On some journeys with professional hikers, he has even come across areas with wildlife. “Once we discovered a lot of animals — wolves, monkeys, donkeys,” he said.
Adventures planned by Jeddah Go Outdoors often include different activities, such as full moon hikes, stargazing, diving, camping, yoga, “color fights,” barbecues, games and entertainment.
“People like seeing new faces, new places and new things,” Shata said. “During the week, we are working. We have managers, noise, stress, a lot of things. In order to move, fly, or escape all these things, we go the natural way. We encourage people to go outside.”
Most importantly, there is not a phone in sight because many areas lack network coverage, giving people a chance to connect.
“I feel happy when I see people smiling and saying to me, ‘Thank you for the trip, I can go back to work, and this gives me the energy to continue,’” Shata said, recalling his own change of routine.
“I found that I was not doing things in a natural way. I was a crazy gamer. I would be playing (video games) or programming five to 10 hours (a day). You would be shocked to see (my life) before. You wouldn’t believe I’d ever become a hiker,” he said.
• This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of the Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.