DUBAI: Just outside the Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk stands (what we assume is) a replica of the Luxor Obelisk found in Place de la Concorde in Paris. It’s somewhat overshadowed by its neighbor, however. After all, the hotel’s 50-floor building — also shaped like a tapering stone pillar — towers over it. Visible from kilometers away in the city, the new kid on the block is now the star of Dubai’s Wafi City complex, which is also home to the pyramid-shaped Raffles Dubai hotel. Sense the theme?
Opening late last year, Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk is arguably one of the most exciting UAE hotel launches in recent times. Not only can it lay claim to now being the largest Sofitel property in the Middle East, but it also features one of the most interesting lobby experiences we’ve explored in a while. Ancient Egyptian interior design, featuring Pharaonic motifs and monuments, catches the eye as soon as you walk through the hotel’s main double doors. A striking golden falcon, boasting a nine-meter wingspan, keeps watch over the reception. Check-in felt like it flew by as we were kept busy taking in the decor and surroundings.
And the Egyptian theme doesn’t stop at the lobby. Our room also featured key art pieces, even in the bathroom. Because who doesn’t like to look at sculptures while in the shower?
The hotel is home to 498 rooms and suites, plus 97 furnished and serviced residences. Our Deluxe Room opened to a spectacular view of the Dubai skyline — Burj Khalifa included — while across on the other side was a spacious bathroom with double sinks, a shower and bathtub, and Lanvin bath products.
Overnight stays aside, this Sofitel sure bagged one heck of a dining win, hosting Daniel Boulud’s first venture in the Middle East. Brasserie Boulud is the latest restaurant in the portfolio of the celebrated chef and restaurateur, who’s known for his two-star Michelin restaurant in New York.
Opting for dinner on the evening of check-in, we were left impressed from start to finish. Whether it was the thoroughly knowledgeable host keeping us entertained or the incredible flavors sampled, Brasserie Boulud is a gastronomy experience for the books. If you’re a fan of steak, go for the “faux filet grille avec frites maison” (Wagyu sirloin accompanied by French fries and spinach). Thank us later.
The hotel is also home to Taiko Dubai, the “first international outpost of Taiko, the award-winning restaurant in Amsterdam,” but it was fully booked during our stay for a function. It currently holds a Google rating of 4.4.
Our 24ish-hour visit flew by, with the next day dedicated to spending it at the pool and lounge area (which also has an obelisk-shaped swimming pool). What we liked here is that there’s an option to book a more private cabana and that the atmosphere was more relaxing compared to many of Dubai’s “party pools,” which we tend to avoid. Overall, the hotel feels more family-friendly and laid back.
After check-out, we decided to stay a little longer by going for lunch at another establishment, and if kitty videos are your thing, then you’re going to want to visit The Nine. This feline-themed British gastropub boasts a creative menu that includes gems like Nine Lives Nachos, Paws in the Air, and a Meowgarita. The eatery’s Saturday Roast comes recommended, but the mains of fish and chips and steak pie that we opted for instead hit the spot.
Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk might not be in Downtown or over at the more tourist-friendly Dubai Marina area, but that shouldn’t affect occupancy. It offers a great location for quick trips (it’s about a 10-minute drive away from the airport), but it’s also one for residents given its excellent dining offerings and staycation-worthy pool facilities. Just don’t forget your camera to capture the views.
Jordan tourism expected to boom by 2023, tourism officials say
Regional tourism has started picking up and international tourists are expected to return in August, September and October
King Abdullah II directed the government to work intensively, through its ambassadors, to depict Jordan as a ‘green’ country for traveling
Updated 30 July 2021
AMMAN/LONDON: The tourism sector in Jordan has gradually started to show signs of a positive trend after a near collapse due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, tourism officials said.
The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the Jordan Tourism Board (JTB) began opening up to domestic tourism, and then to Gulf and neighboring countries, in order to facilitate border movement, Dr. Abed Al-Razzaq Arabiyat, the managing director of the JTB told Arab News.
“We expect the return of international tourism during August, September and October after overcoming several obstacles,” Arabiyat added.
Jordan stood out for its low COVID-19 rates at the start of the pandemic but then saw an exponential rise in confirmed cases, and by November recorded the highest number of coronavirus-related deaths per capita in the Middle East. Authorities declared a state of emergency and imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the world, hitting the tourism sector hard.
Jordan has since managed to flatten the epidemiological curve, has moved from a UK “red list” country to an “amber” one, and in February significantly accelerated its inoculation campaign.
“Societal immunity is high and our epidemiological situation gives positive indications that a complete breakthrough for tourism in the kingdom is near,” Arabiyat said, adding that Jordan has eased more restrictions compared to many other countries, which will play a major role in attracting tourists.
He said King Abdullah II directed the government to work intensively, through its ambassadors, to depict Jordan as a green country, and that it is “clearly moving in that direction.” Marketing campaigns are in place and tourism offices are ready to cooperate, as some countries have already moved the kingdom to their “green” lists. Jordanian hotels and resorts have also begun receiving international bookings from September to November.
Minister of Transport Wajih Azayza said that Queen Alia International Airport received 9 million passengers in 2019, and hopes to return to these numbers after the pandemic.
The airport said on July 17 it welcomed over 1.2 million passengers during first half of the year, with the highest number recorded in June with more than 389,000 passengers. The airport’s total economic contribution exceeded $3.53 billion (about 8.9 percent of GDP).
مطار الملكة علياء الدولي يستقبل أكثر من 1.2 مليون مسافر خلال النصف الأول من عام 2021
The government has also implemented subsidization programs and launched a tourism risk fund valued at $28.2 million to support the sector and alleviate damages. In 2019, Jordan received a record 3 million visitors, bringing in $5.78 billion, which fell to $1.41 billion in 2020.
Last month, the king called for unified efforts to help the tourism and travel sector recover, which accounts for about 20 percent of GDP, and promote tourism to the “Golden Triangle” of Petra, Wadi Rum, and Aqaba.
Arabiyat said that Petra, one of the seven wonders of the world, was most affected due to its high dependence on international tourism, but expects to “hear positive news by September, as there is a demand for the ‘Golden Triangle.’”
From July 1, authorities implemented the second phase of Jordan’s strategy to return to normal life, with tourist facilities permitted to reopen at full capacity. The curfew in the areas of the “Golden Triangle” in the south were lifted, and fully vaccinated visitors may enter as they have been declared COVID-free zones. Phase 3 will begin on Sept. 1, provided that cases remain low and the government reaches its immunization target.
Arabiyat said JTB has also launched the “Breathe” summer marketing campaign to target tourists, particularly families, from Gulf countries.
He said after enduring two exhausting years of the pandemic, “returning to life as we knew it became a dream that everyone was yearning to live once more; yearning to travel and enjoy life, yearning to feel alive again, hence the name of our campaign ‘Breathe’… where people can enjoy life and just breathe.”
Fawzi Al-Hammouri, chairman of Jordan’s Private Hospitals Association, said there had been a remarkable increase in the number of patients arriving for treatment in Jordan in June, specifically from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, after witnessing a decrease during the past year.
Arabiyat said, however, the greatest concern was preserving employment within the tourism sector.
Layali Nashashibi, director of communications and public relations at Movenpick Hotels and Resorts, said they did not let go of any staff throughout the pandemic, even though they had to close both hotels in Petra and one in Aqaba, while the hotel in the Dead Sea was taken over by the government and used for quarantining when it started to bring Jordanians home from abroad.
“Aqaba, at the beginning, it was clean from COVID-19, but Aqaba has tourism and the port. So, if both closed, then the economy will suffer, so they decided that Aqaba would remain open from 6 a.m. until 5 p.m.,” Nashashibi told Arab News.
“I had to interfere with the government to extend some hours of the (hotels and) restaurants, as well as to have more facilities open,” she said, adding that after speaking with the prime minister, they managed to extend opening hours until 10 p.m. across the whole kingdom.
“Now we are depending on international tourism to come back to Jordan … We are optimistic and we have been promised by the government, the Ministry of Tourism, and Jordan Tourism Board that Ryanair and EasyJet will resume flights (to Aqaba) by October,” she added. EasyJet has started taking bookings for Aqaba from November, while cruise ships have also began to trickle in with one from Jeddah expected to arrive in Aqaba at the beginning of August.
Nashashibi said they also hosted familiarization trips for tour operators. Authorities are offering different types of tax reductions and discounts on landing fees, and tourists from Eastern Europe started coming to Aqaba from the end of June, with planes from Russia expected to increase in the coming period.
The city is regulated by the Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority, which has turned it into a low-tax, duty-free city, attracting several mega investment projects like Ayla Oasis, Saraya Aqaba, Marsa Zayed and the expansion of the port, all of which were greatly affected.
“Hopefully, COVID-19 will disappear and we return like before or better than before,” Nashashibi said, adding that she does not see tourism improving until the third quarter of 2022, and expects a boom in the tourism and economic sectors by 2023.
Sally Abu Hijleh, from Montana Travel and Tourism agency, also said it will take about a year for tourism to return, adding that they are working on offers and discounted prices to encourage travel.
For Marwan Eid Abo Al-Adas, owner of souvenir shop Bazaar Al-Wadeeh in Jarash, even if tourists return this summer, all the tourism sectors have suffered such heavy losses that, he believes, they will still struggle.“The compensation will be greater after two or three years (as) there must be continuity in the tourism sector,” he said.
Marwan Soudi, a Jordanian living abroad, who was not able to return home last year, said: “The way they are handling the pandemic here in Jordan, and the way they rolled out vaccines really fast, the authorities are saying that the tourism and just everything being back to normal by 2022-2023, I would say that sounds like a reasonable aim.”
Saudi tourist Abdul Aziz Al-Shalawi said due to Jordan having one of the lowest rates of infections, tourists from Saudi Arabia prefer to visit this summer more than any other country, especially Europe, as its “safety is excellent.”
He said Jordan was beautiful and diverse and that Saudis were also attracted to the kingdom for its medical options. “Jordan has potential and very good doctors and is focused on attracting tourists for treatment, whilst also enjoying their time,” he added.
American tourist Tom Langdon said he hoped tourism would open up more from July to help the Bedouins in Petra, and the people that rely on tourism.
“It’s pretty unfortunate. I went to Petra, and I think there was like maybe 20 people there, and one of the vendors showed me a video, and it looked like a rock concert, it looked like you could barely move without touching someone and he said that that’s how it used to be before COVID-19,” Langdon said.
“I think (Jordan) is an untapped source, I think it’s unfortunate that a lot of this isn’t known to more people. Pretty much every place that I’ve been here in Jordan has been absolutely beautiful (and) I’ve been having a pretty good time.”
Dr. Abdullah Al-Malki, translation coordinator at Hadiya Charity Association and former dean of the College of Languages and Translation at Abha’s King Khalid University, speaks to Arab News during an interview. (AN photo)
Hajj 2021: Revealing the history behind famous Islamic names
New exhibition details history of Mina and Arafat for educating pilgrims and Saudis
For the history of “Arafat,” Al-Malki said this place earned its name because Adam and Eve knew each other in Arafat. “In Arabic, the word ‘araf’ means ‘knew’ in English”
Updated 22 July 2021
MINA: For many, the origin of Islamic names is a mystery. The history behind the names of towns — such as Mina and Arafat — has escaped many Arabs. To fix this, the Royal Commission for Makkah City and Holy Sites has launched a new exhibition to enrich Muslims’ knowledge about various locations of Islam’s birthplace.
The “Between Thabeer and Al-Sabeh” exhibition was opened on Tuesday and welcomed hundreds of pilgrims hoping to learn more about the places that have long been associated with their religious rituals.
For its project, the commission has worked closely with the Hadiya Charity Association (Hadiya). Its translation coordinator and former dean of the college of languages and translation at Abha’s King Khalid University, Dr. Abdullah Al-Malki, told Arab News that the name “Mina” came from the Arabic term “Al-Muna,” plural of “Omniah,” which means “wish.”
“When the Angel Gabriel wanted to leave Adam, he asked to make a wish (Omniah). Adam wished for Paradise. The place was then called Mina, plural of Omniah. There are other narratives which have different claimed explanations for the meaning,” Al-Malki said.
• The name ‘Mina’ came from the Arabic term ‘Al-Muna,’ plural of ‘Omniah,’ which means ‘wish.’ When the Angel Gabriel wanted to leave Adam, he asked to make a wish (Omniah). Adam wished for Paradise. The place was then called Mina.
• The exhibition also presents the story of the Prophet Abraham with the devil, who tried to trick the prophet into disobeying Allah’s order to kill his son Ishmael.
Al-Malki added that visitors can also learn about the 70 prophets who have passed the valley of Mina. “Mina is a valley alongside of which there are two mountains, Thabeer and Al-Sabeh, and it is believed that some 70 prophets have passed through this place, wearing white woolen garments.”
The exhibition also presents the story of the Prophet Abraham with the devil, who tried to trick the prophet into disobeying Allah’s order to kill his son Ishmael. “The heavenly order was just to test Prophet Abraham’s faith.”
Al-Malki said that the exhibition teaches its visitors how the Quranic surah of Al-Mursalat was revealed in a cave in Mina.
For the history of “Arafat,” Al-Malki said this place earned its name because Adam and Eve knew each other in Arafat. “In Arabic, the word ‘araf’ means ‘knew’ in English.”
He added that it is important that pilgrims and ordinary people learn about the history of these places because they are central to Arab civilization.
Al-Malki pointed out that the exhibition, which is being held for the first time, includes 10 sections where visitors can learn more about Al-Masha’er and what services the Saudi kings have offered to contribute to the development of key historical Islamic sites.
“The care and unlimited spending of the leaders of this county — beginning from the late King Abdul Aziz and his sons, to the era of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — have made these places a source of pride for us all through the giant projects that have been implemented here,” he said.
He added that their efforts have also made the mountains and valleys secure and safe places.
“All the historical information about Mina — its water wells, mosques, and mountains — can all be discovered here under one ceiling,” he said, adding: “We are also broadcasting digital materials and pictures with detailed information about the landmarks of the holy sites to enrich the pilgrims’ experience.”
A similar exhibition called “Alsakhrat” was also opened in Arafat to provide pilgrims with historical information about the site. However, the two exhibitions were combined into one in Mina, where the pilgrims are present during the Days of Al-Tashreeq, on which they carry out their “stoning of the Devil” rite.
Pilgrims can also scan an iQR code to visit the exhibition’s multi-language website to read more about the holy places.
Italy to ban mammoth cruise ships from Venice as of Aug. 1
Culture Minister said the ban was urgently adopted at a Cabinet meeting Tuesday and will take effect Aug. 1
Government acted fast “to avoid the concrete risk” the UNESCO lists Venice to “world heritage in danger”
Updated 14 July 2021
ROME: Declaring Venice’s waterways a “national monument,” Italy is banning mammoth cruise liners from sailing into the lagoon city, which risked being declared an imperiled world heritage site by the United Nations within days.
Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said the ban was urgently adopted at a Cabinet meeting Tuesday and will take effect Aug. 1. It applies to the lagoon basin near St. Mark’s Square and the Giudecca Canal, which is a major marine artery in Venice.
Franceschini said the government decided to act fast “to avoid the concrete risk” that the UN culture agency UNESCO would add Venice to its list of “world heritage in danger” after it meets later this week in Beijing.
The Cabinet decree also “establishes an unbreakable principle, by declaring the urban waterways of St. Mark’s Basin, St. Mark’s Canal and the Giudecca Canal a national monument,” the minister added.
Before the coronavirus pandemic severely curtailed international travel, cruise ships discharging thousands of day-trippers overwhelmed Venice and its delicate marine environment. Environmentalists and cultural heritage have battled for decades with business interests, since the cruise industry is a major source of revenue for the city.
UNESCO recommended last month placing Venice on the agency’s list of World Heritage in Danger sites.
The Italian government previously decided to ban the ships but without establishing so soon a date. But on Tuesday, the government “decided to impose a strong acceleration” to implementing the move given the looming UNESCO review, Franceschini said in a statement.
The ban applies to ships weighing more than 25,000 tons or longer than 180 meters (530 feet) or with other characteristics that would make them too polluting or overwhelming for Venice’s environment.
The Cabinet decree also establishes compensation mechanisms for navigation companies and others affected by the ban. Until a more suitable docking area can be established elsewhere in waters outside the heart of Venice, the government has approved creating at least four temporary docking sites near the industrial port of Marghera, located on the northwestern Adriatic Sea.
Foreign yacht owners receiving entry licenses in 30 minutes to cross into Saudi waters
License requests were made through the toll-free number 1980 from inside Saudi Arabia and through 009661980 from abroad
Updated 12 July 2021
JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia’s military and civil servants are working 24 hours a day at Jeddah’s Red Sea Operations Center to provide tourist yachts with entry licenses in half an hour.
The multi-agency center assists foreign yacht owners, and their local agents, in Arabic and English to receive licenses to cross into Saudi waters in support of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s plan to reinforce tourism through facilitating entry to the country for marine activity purposes.
The center is run by the Saudi Border Guards alongside government bodies such as the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Tourism, the General Directorate of Passports, the Transport General Authority, the Saudi Ports Authority, and the Public Investment Fund.
“Launching this center comes in implementation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s directives to set up a department for marine activities to reinforce tourism and support achieving the Saudi Vision 2030,” center manager Commander Hasan Al-Asmari told Arab News.
“Any request should include the yacht’s registration, its classification, and its marine radio certification. A list of the names of the onboard staff, safety and insurance certificates are also necessary for applying for a license. In 30 minutes, we reply to the request via email with the license approved.”
• The Red Sea Operations Center is run by the Saudi Border Guards alongside government bodies such as the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Tourism, the General Directorate of Passports, the Transport General Authority, the Saudi Ports Authority, and the Public Investment Fund.
• License requests were made through the toll-free number 1980 from inside the Kingdom and through 009661980 from abroad. They were also sent by email.
• Since the center was launched, almost 30 licenses had been issued for foreign yachts to enter the Kingdom and sail in its waters.
License requests were made through the toll-free number 1980 from inside the Kingdom and through 009661980 from abroad. They were also sent by email at [email protected]
The service was provided to all foreign tourist yacht owners outside the Kingdom, shipping agents and tourist agents, he said.
He said Interior Minister Prince Abdul Aziz bin Saud bin Naif had ordered the establishment of the center.
“In full cooperation and coordination with representatives from different entities, we issue licenses for visiting islands and beaches, as well as permits for practicing various water activities.”
He added that, since the center was launched, almost 30 licenses had been issued for foreign yachts to enter the Kingdom and sail in its waters. The center has also received more than 83 sailing-related requests for these yachts.
Virgin Galactic spaceship carrying Branson touches down
Touch down occurred around 09:40 am Mountain Time (1540 GMT), about an hour after take-off
"Congratulations to all our wonderful team at Virgin Galactic for 17 years of hard hard work to get us this far," Branson said
Updated 11 July 2021
SPACEPORT AMERICA, United States: A Virgin Galactic spaceship carrying Richard Branson touched down Sunday after a voyage the British billionaire called an "experience of a lifetime."
"Congratulations to all our wonderful team at Virgin Galactic for 17 years of hard hard work to get us this far," he said during a live feed as the VSS Unity spaceship glided back to Spaceport America in New Mexico.
It reached a peak altitude of around 53 miles (85 kilometers), beyond the boundary of space according to the United States, allowing the passengers to experience weightlessness and admire the Earth's curvature.
Touch down occurred around 09:40 am Mountain Time (1540 GMT), about an hour after take-off.