Malaysia’s top tourist destination reopens despite country’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis

Domestic tourists disembark from a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 738 aircraft after landing in Langkawi from Kuala Lumpur on Sept.16, 2021. (Photo by Mohd Rasfan / AFP)
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Domestic tourists disembark from a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 738 aircraft after landing in Langkawi from Kuala Lumpur on Sept.16, 2021. (Photo by Mohd Rasfan / AFP)
A cabin of a cable car is seen on its way up to Sky Bridge in Langkawi, Malaysia on Sept. 16, 2021, as it reopens to domestic tourists. (REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)
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A cabin of a cable car is seen on its way up to Sky Bridge in Langkawi, Malaysia on Sept. 16, 2021, as it reopens to domestic tourists. (REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)
Tourists arrive at the jetty as Langkawi in Malaysia reopens to domestic tourists on Sept. 16, 2021amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)
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Tourists arrive at the jetty as Langkawi in Malaysia reopens to domestic tourists on Sept. 16, 2021amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)
Tourists walk past a thermal scanner at the jetty as Langkawi in Malaysia reopens on Sept. 16, 2021 to domestic tourists amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)
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Tourists walk past a thermal scanner at the jetty as Langkawi in Malaysia reopens on Sept. 16, 2021 to domestic tourists amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)
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Updated 17 September 2021

Malaysia’s top tourist destination reopens despite country’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis

Malaysia’s top tourist destination reopens despite country’s ongoing COVID-19 crisis
  • Reopening of Langkawi part of domestic tourism bubble strategy to restore Malaysia’s reeling visitor sector
  • Only fully vaccinated domestic travelers allowed to visit island resort as 30,000 tourists expected in next 2 weeks

KUALA LUMPUR:  The Malaysian holiday resort of Langkawi on Thursday welcomed its first visitors in months as part of a government pilot project to revive the country’s coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic-ravaged tourism sector.

Langkawi has been reopened as a domestic tourism bubble in the face of Malaysia’s ongoing battle against the virus.

The government strategy is aimed at giving a much-needed shot in the arm to the hospitality and tourism industry — one of the top contributors to the Malaysian economy — after months of local travel curbs and if successful it could lead to other holiday destinations following suit.

Tight restrictions have been put in place and only fully vaccinated domestic tourists will be allowed to visit the island resort off the country’s northwestern coast.

Malaysia has so far recorded more than 2 million COVID-19 cases among its population of 32 million — one the of highest per capita infection rates in Asia — and new daily case figures remain high at around 20,000.

The country’s director general of health, Noor Hisham Abdullah, told Arab News the Langkawi Travel Bubble Task Force had divided the island into three zones to monitor developments. “All preparations have been made and we hope for the best,” he said.




A cabin of a cable car is seen on its way up to Sky Bridge in Langkawi, Malaysia on Sept. 16, 2021, as it reopens to domestic tourists. (REUTERS/Lim Huey Teng)

Local officials said they were ready to receive more than 30,000 tourists in Langkawi over the next two weeks.

Nasaruddin Abdul Muttalib, chief executive officer of the Langkawi Development Authority, said: “We have put in proper procedures so that there is no spread of the virus.

“Passengers will be screened at entry points. If they show any symptoms, they must isolate, and necessary steps will be taken. We have thought of all the scenarios.”

Authorities are banking on the full cooperation of visitors as the project’s success could be key to Malaysia’s return to normal.

Tourism Langkawi chairman, Pishol Ishak, said: “Everybody has a role to play. If everybody works together hand-in-hand, this measure will be very successful and can be replicated in other parts of Malaysia.”

For Langkawi business owners and travelers flying to the resort, famed for its white sandy beaches, the reopening represents a big first step toward a return to normality.

Sheba Gumis, a 33-year-old tourist from Kuala Lumpur, told Arab News: “We have been cooped up in Kuala Lumpur for over a year now. Life was put on hold for so long. The virus will continue to live with us.”

Ahmad Firdaus, a car rental company owner in Langkawi, said it was high time tourism reopened for the sake of the industry’s survival.

“We have to go on doing businesses in this new norm. We need tourist spots to be open to gain income. Even if the situation is bad, we must learn to live with it,” he added.


Tbilisi: Cheap and cheerful, but still luxurious

Tbilisi: Cheap and cheerful, but still luxurious
Tbilisi is also a good starting point for day trips around the rest of Georgia. Getty Images
Updated 15 October 2021

Tbilisi: Cheap and cheerful, but still luxurious

Tbilisi: Cheap and cheerful, but still luxurious
  • The Georgian capital and its surrounds offer rich history, stunning views, and hearty food at bargain prices

DUBAI: If you are on the lookout for a city vacation that won’t break the bank, but also won’t force you to compromise on quality, then the Georgian capital of Tbilisi — an urban sprawl nestled in a series of mountains following the route of the Kura River — is well worth a visit.

Its architecture reflects the country’s varied past and its geographical location where East (nearly) meets West. The influence of the latter is as clearly apparent as that of the Russian Empire and the Soviet era with its imposing apartment blocks.

Tbilisi is not a huge city, but you can easily fill a week walking the streets, visiting the various tourist attractions and absorbing its busy, vibrant atmosphere.

The old city of Tblisi. Getty Images

The airport is a short drive from the city center, but beware; there are people, mostly men, wearing black tabard’s emblazoned with the words “Airport taxi.” Make sure you agree a price before starting your ride, otherwise you might find you’re paying up to three times the actual fare.

Despite the airport taxis, though, Tbilisi is highly affordable. Georgia has embraced the European Union but not the Euro and as such remains a place where your wallet will be less strained than in many European countries.

You can stay in one of the many 4-star hotels in the heart of the old city for as little as $300 for four nights — although you can certainly spend more if you want to — and you can eat a hearty meal with beverages for as little as $20. 

View from Zedazeni Mountain. Shutterstock

The concierge at most hotels will help you come up with an itinerary, but be sure to include the Zedazeni Monastery. Located at the top of the Zedazeni mountain, it is one of the country’s oldest and boasts a vast metal cross as well as panoramic views of the surrounding countryside.

It’s also worth investing in bus tour of the city. Tickets are valid for 24 hours, and the tour takes in all major tourist attractions.  

A walk around the old town is a must — the narrow streets are lined with historic buildings, first floor balconies overlooking the tree-filled streets; it’s like a scene from an old French market town. Overlooking this idyll is the Mother of Georgia statue. It’s a short-but-steep walk to this monument, and the reward is spectacular views across the city.

 

Mother of Georgia statue. Getty Images

Outside of the old town, the roads are busier and traffic is heavy. It’s not the most pedestrian-friendly place — sidewalks often come to an abrupt end, leaving you with the choice of a quick dash into the road or a sharp U-turn to find a better route.

Another great location for spectacular views is Mtatsminda Park, which can be reached via the Tbilisi Funicular ropeway railway connecting Chonkadze street with the summit, 727 meters above sea level. 

It gets hot in Georgia in the summer and the city’s galleries and museums offer a welcome escape. The National Gallery, on Rustaveli Avenue, is small, but provides an interesting insight into Georgian history. A short distance away is the Georgian Museum of Fine Art, which — apart from its three floors of artworks — also boasts a tremendous café.  

National Art Gallery. Shutterstock

If markets are your thing, set aside some time for the flea market next to the Dry Bridge. It has a wide selection of arts and crafts and is a nice place for a stroll, even if you have no intention of buying anything. Who knows? You might just find that bronze bust of Stalin to add the finishing touch to your guest room.

Tbilisi is also a good starting point for day trips around the rest of Georgia. The country’s third city, Kutaisi, is around three hours away by car, up in the mountains, surrounded by impressive scenery. It’s a far slower-paced city than the capital, with a broad selection of restaurants and cafés in which to while away the time.

Kutaisi. Shutterstock

Georgia is a beautiful country, and a popular destination because it is also remarkably cheap. Remember though, people are paid relative to that level of cost — so be sure to tip generously when eating out. You’ll be able to afford it, and it will make your waiter’s day.


ThePlace: Rajajil Columns, the ‘Stonehenge of Saudi Arabia’

ThePlace: Rajajil Columns, the ‘Stonehenge of Saudi Arabia’
Updated 02 October 2021

ThePlace: Rajajil Columns, the ‘Stonehenge of Saudi Arabia’

ThePlace: Rajajil Columns, the ‘Stonehenge of Saudi Arabia’
  • Archaeologists understand that the site served as a burial place but others believe the columns served an astronomical purpose

The Rajajil Columns, a mysterious site located 20 kilometers south of Sakakah city, are often nicknamed the “Stonehenge of Saudi Arabia.”

The name of the site translates to “the men,” and the monument might be the oldest in the region, researchers say.

Mystery surrounding the origins of the monument has attracted significant attention and visitors from around the Kingdom. Many myths and superstitions surround the columns. Archaeologists understand that the site served as a burial place, but have yet to discover more about the importance of the columns.

Archaeologists understand that the site served as a burial place but others believe the columns served an astronomical purpose

The site consists of 50 monolithic stones that stick out of the ground at different angles. It is believed that they have stood in position since about 4,000 B.C. However, over the centuries, some have fallen to the ground.

Despite the dominant burial site theory, a competing belief proposes that the stones originally served an astronomical purpose due to the angles in which they stand in relation to the stars above, adding to the mystery of the site.

Visitors must seek prior permission from authorities before visiting the site.


Canada’s Banff offers brilliant blues and vibrant views

Canada’s Banff offers brilliant blues and vibrant views
Updated 01 October 2021

Canada’s Banff offers brilliant blues and vibrant views

Canada’s Banff offers brilliant blues and vibrant views

DUBAI: Have you ever truly experienced the color blue before a trip to the Canadian Rockies?

The famous lakes that dot the area’s national parks are such electric shades of cyan and turquoise and cerulean it will leave you wondering if you’ve ever seen such a hue in your life.

Hemmed in by serrated mountains in every direction, these mountain tarns are the crowning jewels of Canadian tourism — and they’re at their most glorious in Alberta’s Banff National Park.

Canada’s oldest national park covers 6,641 square kilometers of prime Canadian Rockies real estate. (Shutterstock)

You’ve likely seen pictures of Banff before — even if you don’t realize it. Canada’s oldest national park covers 6,641 square kilometers of prime Canadian Rockies real estate. And those glassy, ice-blue lakes, with the jagged peaks towering over them, are as ubiquitous in the area as Tim Hortons is in the city. 

After some of the longest COVID-19 lockdowns in the world, Canada reopened to vaccinated international tourists on September 7. Which meant that on our much-anticipated trip to UNESCO-listed Banff on September 9, we expected to be greeted by at least a few selfie-stick-wielding tour groups and Americans from just over the border. Instead, operators repeatedly informed us that 90 percent of their customers that weekend were from Ontario.

“That’s why now’s the best time to explore Canada,” the woman selling tickets for canoe rentals on the postcard-ready Lake Louise said with a wink.

Canada’s UNESCO-listed national park offers some of the world’s most spectacular panoramas. (Supplied)

The hamlet of Lake Louise — known for its sparkling, glacier-fed lake, ringed by high peaks — is arguably Banff’s most-recognizable destination. There is no bustling township here, though — no hawkers selling keychains or chocolates shaped like moose dung — just the stately Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise, standing sentinel over the area. 

To stay here is to be escorted into your own oil painting; waking up each day to be greeted with the mountains and waters that grace many a Microsoft screensaver, and — if you’re up early enough — without hordes of tourists. Come 10 a.m. or so, the crowds arrive along the lakeshore in front of the hotel, but though the car parks are full and a space without photo bombers hard to find, operators are quick to point out that ‘Banff Mania’ means there are usually many more holidaymakers here at this time of year. So several dozen people taking in the sunrise atop a rocky outcrop at the nearby Lake Moraine, perhaps the national park’s most awe-inducing sight (even craggier peaks and somehow more-turquoise waters), apparently constitutes a “quiet” morning. As the access road to the lake is only open from June until mid-October, it’s a coveted excursion, with the lake’s 150 parking spots completely full most days by 5 a.m.

In the winter, the frozen lakes and white, powdery mountains bring in skiers and ice-skaters. (Supplied)

Banff is a year-round destination. In summer, hikers flock here for the 1,600 kilometers of hiking trails, and in the winter the frozen lakes and white, powdery mountains bring in skiers and ice-skaters.

From the Fairmont at Lake Louise, some of the area’s most incredible hikes are literally outside your front door; head for the Big Beehive Trail for panoramic views over Lake Louise courtesy of a reasonably steep but well-trafficked climb, while the Plain of the Two Glaciers hike is a meandering stroll through a larch-tree-filled valley. 

Forty minutes’ drive back towards Calgary, the famed Banff township is where most visitors to the national park stay for at least a few nights. The town is famed in international ski circles for the Sunshine Village ski field, but despite being touristy, its natural hot springs, hiking trails and the sloping rooves of its timbered architecture create an authentic ‘mountain escape’ feel.

Banff is a year-round destination. (Shutterstock)

Fairmont has a monopoly on luxury accommodation here too. The turreted, fortress-like structure of Fairmont Banff Springs is one of the country’s oldest railway hotels, and houses its own thermal springs and championship golf course. With sweeping views over the Bow River, the instantly recognizable peaks of Mt. Rundle and Tunnel Mountain, and an interior that resembles a castle in the Scottish Highlands, this is a landmark in itself for both international and domestic tourists.

In summer, take to the gentle slopes of Tunnel Mountain for views over the town and the surrounding valley, or if you’re feeling plucky, tackle the demanding Mt. Rundle and follow it up with a drink on the hotel patio. From there, you can toast the craggy rock face that will have you walking bow-legged for the next three days at least.

Because whether it’s rising before the sun to beat the crowds or heaving yourself up a sheer rock face for the best views, Banff will give you some spectacular memories — but it will make you work for them.


Between mountains and sea: Off the tourist track in Greece

Between mountains and sea: Off the tourist track in Greece
Updated 23 September 2021

Between mountains and sea: Off the tourist track in Greece

Between mountains and sea: Off the tourist track in Greece
  • The Athenian suburbs of Kfissia and Glyfada are favorites with locals, and ideal for those looking to avoid Greece’s tourist-heavy hotspots

DUBAI: Visitors to Greece usually flock to the islands or make the hike up to the Acropolis for a mandatory selfie with ruins. So there’s a side of Athens they may miss — a place where Greek residents like to ‘summer.’ Welcome to the leafy northern suburb of Kifissia: my childhood hometown.

Tourists may recognize it as the last stop on the metro, with Pireaus port at the other end of the line. Kifissia is a tree-lined town full of designer boutiques and colorful cafés. Its history can be traced back to the reign of Roman emperor Hadrian, when Kifissia became a retreat for philosophers. Today, it is a respite for wealthy Athenians to enjoy cooler climes during the hot summers. 

Less crowded than downtown Athens, Kifissia is a charming town that looks like a romantic comedy set. At any time of day, you might be serenaded by an amateur guitarist singing classics above the din of old men playing backgammon and discussing politics. Restaurant tables and chairs sprawl onto the pavements. Grab a pistachio ice cream at Dodoni, a ‘mythical’ chicken souvlaki from Mythos stuffed with fries, or an iced Frappe at Everest just to people-watch.

Glyfada has image-conscious, LA-style vibe and hotels to match. (Shutterstock)

The old-new mix is obvious at first glance. On Kassaveti Avenue, under the speckled shade of trees, global brands L’Occitane and HSBC neighbor homegrown favorites like Varsos, a bakery that first opened its doors in 1892 and still serves the same delectable homemade jams and cakes. Don’t be fooled by the standard outlets like Zara, Paul and Gap to the right of this main street. Tucked away nearby is a string of brightly colored, new cafés that have sprung up out of a need for vibrancy and socializing after the COVID lockdowns. 

La Petite Fleur will have you thinking you’ve stepped into a magical world — with thick slices of chocolate cake and whipped cream served on pastel colored plates. Menta has pink-and-green pillows on stone steps beneath the shade of trees and offers a list of coffees as long as the food menu. For an authentic Greek meal, the taverna at the top of the hill, Tzitzikas & Mermigas, serves wild greens from Crete, smoked chicken from Lakonia, and rosemary-rubbed goat from an old family recipe.

Peinirli is a boat-shaped pie filled with bubbling cheese and tomatoes. (Shutterstock)

The newest accommodation in Kifissia includes the stylish Say Hotel, 500 meters away from the National History Museum, with a rooftop bar offering panoramic views of the city. Families will enjoy the quiet — and pool — at Theoxenia Palace, a regal hotel with a verdant park at its doorstep and the sound of church bells ringing in the air.

Growing up, we used to regularly drive 45 minutes to the southern suburb of Glyfada, where salty sea air meets a trendy city center. Its long strip of hotels, beaches and restaurants dotted along the Athenian Riviera has a laidback Seventies vibe. Time feels slower here and it’s always a few degrees warmer than Kifissia. A grand church stands in the center of Glyfada, where narrow streets house Greek designer boutiques including Pinko and Mirina Tsantili. Some areas have their own vibe; Kyprou Street and Botsari district have the latest see-and-be-seen restaurants that seem to change every year. Foodies will love O Proedros (President in Greek), its whitewashed walls, woven seats, and a menu that includes Greek classics like peinirli (a boat-shaped pie filled with bubbling cheese and tomatoes) make it seem like it belongs on one of the islands.

Across the main Poseidonos highway, you’ll have your pick of beautiful public beaches. For a small fee, some private clubs like Asteras and Balux offer sunbeds, pools and restaurants where the fashion set like to hang out. Either way, the siren call of that deep, Aegean blue with its backdrop of green hills will steal the show.

The newest accommodation in Kifissia includes the stylish Say Hotel, 500 meters away from the National History Museum. (Shutterstock)

Glyfada has image-conscious, LA-style vibe and hotels to match. Four Seasons Astir Palace is the grand dame — it sits on its own peninsula with a private, sandy bay, and you will hear as much Arabic spoken among guests as you would in the Middle East. 

The Margi Hotel is another stunning property, tucked into the green hills of Vouliagmeni, with blush walls and a retro pool surrounded by fuscia bougainvillea. The top floors have breathtaking balcony sea views and you will find yourself researching the cost of purchasing a property nearby just to hold onto this feeling forever.

Thirty years of coming back every summer, and I still love to discover Greece’s stories between the mountains and the sea. Each visit, I find something new, rediscover something old, and am always struck by the beauty.


Saudi Arabia’s Farasan Islands: From ‘habitat hotspot’ to Red Sea sanctuary

The UNESCO listing will help the Saudi Ministry of Culture achieve the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 goals as well as improve the quality of life on the islands. (SPA)
The UNESCO listing will help the Saudi Ministry of Culture achieve the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 goals as well as improve the quality of life on the islands. (SPA)
Updated 22 September 2021

Saudi Arabia’s Farasan Islands: From ‘habitat hotspot’ to Red Sea sanctuary

The UNESCO listing will help the Saudi Ministry of Culture achieve the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 goals as well as improve the quality of life on the islands. (SPA)
  • Farasan Islands’ listing as a UNESCO biosphere reserve adds to the wildlife haven’s enduring global appeal

JEDDAH/MAKKAH: With their spectacular coral reefs, pristine beaches and rare wildlife species, the Farasan Islands, located off the port city of Jazan in southwest Saudi Arabia, have long been a focus for investment in marine tourism as the Kingdom seeks to highlight its wealth of natural and heritage attractions.

The Farasan Islands Marine Sanctuary was established in the late 1980s and covers an area of about 350 square kilometers, its administrative supervisor, Issa Shuailan, told Arab News.
“It was established with the aim of preserving the biodiversity, especially Farasan’s antelopes, sea turtles, shura trees and mangroves, in addition to rationalizing the exploitation of its marine resources,” Shuailan added.
Now the Red Sea archipelago’s future as a key tourist destination and wildlife sanctuary has been given a major boost with its inclusion in a world network of biosphere reserves as part of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere program.

FASTFACTS

● Now the Red Sea archipelago’s future as a key tourist destination and wildlife sanctuary has been given a major boost with its inclusion in a world network of biosphere reserves as part of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere program.

● The islands — described as a “habitat hotspot” and the first site in Saudi Arabia to be listed as a biosphere reserve — were among 20 new locations in 21 countries registered to ensure biodiversity conservation, environmental education, research and sustainable development.

The islands — described as a “habitat hotspot” and the first site in Saudi Arabia to be listed as a biosphere reserve — were among 20 new locations in 21 countries registered to ensure biodiversity conservation, environmental education, research and sustainable development.
Listing of the Farasan Islands under the UNESCO program follows extensive efforts by Saudi authorities to ensure the Kingdom’s cultural and heritage sites are recognized in regional and international forums. Inclusion in the UNESCO list will also ensure the islands’ natural and archaeological treasures receive global protection.
The archipelago includes 90 of the Jazan region’s 200 islands and islets with a total area of more than 600 square kilometers.
Three of the islands are inhabited: Farasan Al-Kubra, which houses government and services departments, along with a number of hotels and apartments that welcome visitors, and the islands of Sajid and Qummah, which make up Farasan Al-Soghra, or small Farasan. The islands are up to 70 km long and 20-40 km wide.
In the past, pearl-rich fisheries were among the primary sources of livelihood for the people of Farasan, in addition to fishing, which is still the main occupation.
The archipelago’s location near international shipping routes and its proximity to the Bab Al-Mandab Strait and the Horn of Africa have given it added significance.
A wealth of natural and archaeological resources, coral reefs and fish stocks has attracted the attention of visitors, tourists, financers, businessmen and fishermen.
Archaeological tourist sites include Wadi Matar, located in the south of Farasan Al-Kubra, which has large rocks with Himyaritic inscriptions dating back to the 10th century, and Al-Qassar village, where the much older site of Al-Kedmi includes stone remnants that resemble Roman columns. Another site, Mount Luqman, holds the ruins of an old fortress.
Saudi historian and journalist Ibrahim Muftah told Arab News that some people assume Farasan was uninhabited until very recently, but the historical evidence shows otherwise.

What attracts visitors the most to Farasan is the diversity of the 262 islands, and each island has its natural splendor and something that makes it special from the other.

Adel Al-Awani, Tour guide

“Recent studies have proven that it was inhabited thousands of years ago, since the Stone Age, as Zahi Hawass (an Egyptian archaeologist and former minister of state for antiquities affairs) wrote,” he said.
The residents of the islands were civilized, he added, and the archaeological evidence reveals they were adept at sailing and traveled by sea, east and west, to several other countries.
Ancient tombs are located near Jarmal House on Qamah island, along with historical buildings designed according to the unique architectural style of the time.
Al-Najdi Mosque, built in 1928, is among several historic buildings scattered across the archipelago.
The palatial Al-Rifai houses, built in 1922 at the height of the pearl trade, are considered major attractions because of the technical and architectural skills that went into their construction.
The houses were built using the island’s rocks and limestone from the coral reefs. Raw gypsum was also used, and gypsum mines can still be found on the islands today.
However, the Farasan Islands are best known for their extensive and unique biodiversity, which distinguishes them from other reserves in the Kingdom.
The islands are home to more than 230 species of fish, numerous endangered marine species and 50 types of coral reef. Rhizophora and mangrove forests are important incubators for young fish and crustaceans.
The archipelago is also a sanctuary for the Kingdom’s largest gathering of edmi gazelles and an important bird migration corridor, with about 165 bird species. It also has the largest concentration of pink-backed pelicans on the Red Sea and the largest concentration of ospreys in the Middle East.
A wildlife reserve offers shelter to deer and numerous bird species, in addition to parrotfish, which migrate to the islands once a year.
The archipelago contains more than 180 species of plants, four of which are found nowhere else in the Kingdom.
The islands’ unique appeal also stems from its historical significance and natural attractions — all of which qualifies it to be a world heritage site.
Tourists, visitors and those seeking natural beauty, sandy beaches, sea cruises, diving and fishing have turned the archipelago into one of Jazan’s most prominent tourist destinations as investment opportunities continue to grow.
“What attracts visitors the most to Farasan is the diversity of the 262 islands, and each island has its natural splendor and something that makes it special from the other,”Adel Al-Awani, who has been a Farasan Islands tour guide for more than seven years, told Arab News.
“Most importantly, there is the calmness of the islands, clear sea, coral reefs, wonderful diving areas, fishing, and joyous beaches that are approximately 200 km long.”
But there is much more to Farasan than its beautiful beaches, he added. Among other things it was a center of the pearl trade 200 years ago, he explained, and is rich in archaeological treasures with a history dating back more than 3,000 years.
“Farasan is meant to be a tourist attraction by its very nature; it attracts visitors from all over the world,” said Al-Awani. “When the Saudi tourism visa was launched (in 2019), we hosted many international tourists. “The approximate number of tourists during one month can reach 3,000, and it reaches 30,000 to 40,000 during the year.”
During the pandemic, he said, the islands proved to be a popular destination for people from within Saudi Arabia when lockdown restrictions allowed. Even while international flights were suspended, three ferries a day, each carrying about 600 visitors, would arrive, he added.
“Despite some shortage in hotels, resorts, and transportation, the number of tourists was outstanding,” said Al-Awani.
Major developments in terms of tourism-related projects and investments, infrastructure and services are planned in coming years, as the islands become a key tourist destination.
Muftah noted that the islands require investment in terms of infrastructure, in particular a fast and convenient transportation system instead of the existing ferries that no longer fit the spirit of the modern age.
Listing of the Farasan Islands in the Man and the Biosphere program was announced this month during a meeting of the 33rd session of the program’s coordinating committee, and follows three years of work by the Saudi Heritage Preservation Society to fulfill all criteria required for registration.
The UNESCO listing will help the Saudi Ministry of Culture achieve the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 goals as well as improve the quality of life on the islands.