Up above the world so high: Spanish balloon pilot flies over Saudi Arabia’s AlUla

Spanish hot air balloon pilot Francisco Castillo has fulfilled his bucket list goal of flying over AlUla and exploring the beauty of the Kingdom’s desert. (Supplied)
Spanish hot air balloon pilot Francisco Castillo has fulfilled his bucket list goal of flying over AlUla and exploring the beauty of the Kingdom’s desert. (Supplied)
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Updated 03 January 2024
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Up above the world so high: Spanish balloon pilot flies over Saudi Arabia’s AlUla

Up above the world so high: Spanish balloon pilot flies over Saudi Arabia’s AlUla
  • Spanish hot air balloon pilot says flying in AlUla has always been on his bucket list

RIYADH: Spanish hot air balloon pilot Francisco Castillo has fulfilled his bucket list goal of flying over AlUla and exploring the beauty of the Kingdom’s desert.

Castillo’s love for hot air balloons began at the age of 14 when during a lunch break at school he and his classmates saw one flying overhead before landing in a field nearby.

“Back in the day, a hot air balloon was a rare sight, more associated with Phileas Fogg’s adventures than real life. Hundreds of kids ran flat out toward it, absolutely fascinated by the marvelous scene we were witnessing. That day left a mark on me!” Castillo said.

Two years later, when he was old enough to work, he started saving money from summer jobs to become a hot air balloon pilot.

“I had to wait until I was 20 to start my training as a balloon pilot, and at the age of 22, I set up my own company, bought my own hot air balloon, and started offering hot air balloon rides,” he said.

After having flown in over 20 countries, Castillo said he was fascinated by the landscape of the Kingdom, as it is home to one of the largest deserts in the world. 

“Every flight is nothing short of spectacular!” he said, describing AlUla as a “museum where time stands still” and a place that “preserves the echoes of ancient civilizations.”

When Castillo was offered the opportunity to fly with Hero Balloon Flights in Hegra, he could not let the opportunity pass him by.

His favorite places to fly have been Jaipur in India, Cappadocia in Turkiye, and AlUla in Saudi Arabia.

“The Rajasthani villages, surreal landscapes, lesser-known palaces, and magnificent forts, as well as the close interaction with the local Rajasthani culture and the vibrant and friendly local communities, make this experience unique … Cappadocia, in Turkiye, is a region with unique rock formations and outstanding sceneries,” he shared. 

“And it would be inconceivable not to include in this list the Hegra Archaeological Site with Hero Balloon Flights in KSA … The landscape of AlUla from a hot air balloon is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever seen, and I consider myself privileged to be flying here. The harmony between the endless sandy scenery, whimsical rock formations, clear blue skies and sublime sunrises make this area a paragon of unmitigated beauty.”

Flying restrictions, however, are a challenge that hot air balloon pilots have to contend with, said Castillo.

“Especially if there are large commercial farms underneath us or densely populated areas, we need to steer clear of them … I have to admit, it is truly comforting when you land in someone’s field, and they come out to greet you with tea, coffee, biscuits and cake rather than an angry red face,” he said.

Since the beginning of his career, Castillo has seen major developments in technology that have facilitated the hot air balloon experience.

“Nowadays, hot air balloons incorporate advanced navigation systems, including GPS, altimeters, and variometers. These instruments allow pilots to navigate more accurately, monitor altitude, and track weather conditions in real-time, enhancing the overall control and safety of the flight,” he said.

For those worried about being in the air for an hour, Castillo reassures his passengers that hot air balloons are some of the safest forms of aviation.

“However, hot air balloons move at a rate equal to the surrounding environment, so there’s no chance of motion sickness of this kind. Passengers floating in a hot air balloon are often astonished by the lack of turbulence, with no perception of moving up and down during the flight as they drift with the breeze, making it a very serene experience,” he said.

Castillo says he has witnessed interesting encounters in his career.

“It’s not a surprise that hot air ballooning is synonymous with romance, and every pilot loves it when we get a sky-high proposal,” he said.

“However, there was a time, a few years back, when I was piloting a balloon with 20 passengers, and one of the passengers proposed to his significant other, and she said ‘no.’

“The awkward silence that reigned during the remaining 45 minutes of the flight and the discomfort on everybody’s faces marked this flight as my least favorite ever, and I have never been so happy to land.”


Saudi Arabia to host Islamic Development Bank Group annual meetings and golden jubilee

Saudi Arabia to host Islamic Development Bank Group annual meetings and golden jubilee
Updated 15 sec ago
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Saudi Arabia to host Islamic Development Bank Group annual meetings and golden jubilee

Saudi Arabia to host Islamic Development Bank Group annual meetings and golden jubilee
  • As the bank celebrates its 50th anniversary, the meetings will have the theme ‘Taking Pride in Our Past and Shaping Our Future: Authenticity, Solidarity and Prosperity’

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia will host the annual meetings and golden jubilee celebrations of the Islamic Development Bank Group in Riyadh between April 27 and 30, under the patronage of King Salman.

This year’s meetings will take place under the theme “Taking Pride in Our Past and Shaping Our Future: Authenticity, Solidarity and Prosperity,” the Saudi Press Agency reported.

The bank describes itself as a pivotal platform for development dialogue, and said it is celebrating 50 years of fostering social and economic growth among its members. As a leading multilateral development bank, it said it expects the event to attract significant international and regional attention.

Participants will include economic, planning and finance ministers from the 57 member countries of the bank, along with representatives of international and regional financial agencies and organizations, Islamic banks, the private sector, development finance institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and chambers of commerce and industry.

Organizers said the annual gathering serves as a vital forum for the enhancement of economic ties and expansion of cooperation among participants. Its agenda includes forums, seminars and meetings on a range of topics, with particularly notable events including the Governors’ Round Table, the 18th IDB Global Forum on Islamic Finance, and the IDB Group Private Sector Forum.

Topics for discussion will include the role of small and medium enterprises in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 development and diversification agenda, strategies for the financing of efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goals, the leveraging of Islamic finance for the development of resilient infrastructure, and the establishment of the Arab Coordination Group Forum.

The Future Vision Symposium and the General Assembly of the Union of Consultants in Islamic Countries will also take place during the event.


Saudi foreign minister and Pakistan army chief discuss security and strategic cooperation

Saudi foreign minister and Pakistan army chief discuss security and strategic cooperation
Updated 17 April 2024
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Saudi foreign minister and Pakistan army chief discuss security and strategic cooperation

Saudi foreign minister and Pakistan army chief discuss security and strategic cooperation
  • Prince Faisal arrived in Pakistan on Monday for a two-day official visit, the main aim of which was to enhance economic cooperation

ISLAMABAD: Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan, held talks in Islamabad on Tuesday with the chief of staff of the Pakistan Army, Gen. Asim Munir.

They discussed ways to enhance the “strong cooperation” between their nations in several fields, including ways to work together to improve security and strategic cooperation in ways that contribute to international peace and security.

Prince Faisal arrived in Pakistan on Monday for a two-day official visit, the main aim of which was to enhance economic cooperation. He also met President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and Foreign Minister Ishaq Dar.

The prince was leading a high-level Saudi delegation that included Minister of Environment, Water and Agriculture Abdul Rahman Al-Fadhli, Minister of Industry and Mineral Resources Bandar Al-Khorayef, and senior officials from the ministries of energy and investment, and the Public Investment Fund.


Saudi authorities highlight tourism commitments during UN Sustainability Week in New York

Saudi authorities highlight tourism commitments during UN Sustainability Week in New York
Updated 17 April 2024
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Saudi authorities highlight tourism commitments during UN Sustainability Week in New York

Saudi authorities highlight tourism commitments during UN Sustainability Week in New York
  • Tourism minister says he hopes Kingdom can help lead transformation of sector into an environmentally friendly industry that supports communities and countries

NEW YORK: The Saudi tourism minister on Tuesday reiterated the Kingdom’s commitment to sustainable development of the travel sector.

Ahmed Al-Khateeb said that under the leadership of King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has become one of the most promising and attractive global travel destinations.

He was speaking at the start of an event at the UN headquarters in New York that aims to encourage a concerted approach to enhance the resilience of the sector at the highest level and maximize its contribution to sustainability.

The event, which takes place during UN Sustainability Week, was convened by the president of the 78th session of the UN General Assembly, Dennis Francis, in cooperation with UN Tourism.

Al-Khateed highlighted the efforts the Kingdom is making to address the environmental impacts of the travel and tourism sector, and noted that those efforts had contributed to the establishment, with Saudi Support, of the World Travel and Tourism Council and the World Center for Sustainable Tourism.

During the past two years, Saudi Arabia has sought, in its role as chair of the executive council of UN Tourism, to enhance the representation of the travel and tourism sector in international forums, Al-Khateeb said.

This has resulted in UN Tourism and the Kingdom cooperating on a package of initiatives to help achieve this goal, including a Best Tourism Villages award, a Tourism Opens Minds initiative, and a working group to reimagine the future of tourism, Al-Khateeb added. He also noted his country’s efforts to ensure the tourism sector was properly represented on the agenda for UN Sustainability Week. 

Saudi Arabia topped the UN World Tourism list in 2023 in terms of growth among major tourism destinations in the number of international visitors. It also topped the list of G20 nations in terms of the number of international tourists, welcoming more than 27 million last year, Al-Khateeb said. He added that authorities in the Kingdom are developing plans and strategies to attract more than 70 million international tourists a year by 2030.

By then, he said, the Kingdom aims to have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by more than 278 million tonnes annually, designated 30 percent of land and marine territory as protected areas, and planted more than 600 million trees.

“The Kingdom has taken significant steps to launch the Sustainable Tourism Global Center, with the aim of accelerating the travel and tourism sector’s transition to climate neutrality, protecting nature and empowering communities around the world,” Al-Khateeb said.

He also highlighted major Saudi projects such as the NEOM smart city development and the Red Sea tourism project that aim to ensure they have positive effects on the climate, environment and local communities.

He also expressed the Kingdom’s aspiration for all countries to make concerted efforts, and be open to cooperation, to achieve the goal of sustainable development in the global travel and tourism sector.

Al-Khateeb said that through this important UN event, he hopes the Kingdom can spread a message to the world about the need to preserve the environment, and can help lead and support the transformation of tourism into an environmentally friendly industry that supports communities and countries worldwide.

UN Sustainability Week began on Monday at the UN headquarters in New York and continues until Friday.


Saudi crown prince discusses military escalation in the region with UAE president, Qatar emir

Saudi crown prince discusses military escalation in the region with UAE president, Qatar emir
Updated 17 April 2024
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Saudi crown prince discusses military escalation in the region with UAE president, Qatar emir

Saudi crown prince discusses military escalation in the region with UAE president, Qatar emir

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman received two separate calls from UAE president Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Qatar’s emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Saudi Press Agency said early Wednesday.

The calls discussed the recent military escalation in the region and its repercussions on safety and security, in addition to the latest developments in Gaza.

They also underscored the importance of exerting efforts to prevent the situation from worsening and to spare the region the dangers of this escalation, the SPA added.


Saudi Arabia highlights its environmental and sustainability efforts at Our Ocean Conference

Saudi Arabia highlights its environmental and sustainability efforts at Our Ocean Conference
Updated 16 April 2024
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Saudi Arabia highlights its environmental and sustainability efforts at Our Ocean Conference

Saudi Arabia highlights its environmental and sustainability efforts at Our Ocean Conference
  • The Saudi delegation at the two-day event is led by the CEO of the National Center for Wildlife, Mohammed Qurban
  • During 8 previous events since the conference was launched in 2014, participants announced 2,160 commitments worth $130 billion

RIYADH: Saudi authorities showcased their programs and plans for environmental protection and sustainability initiatives on Tuesday, during the first day of the 9th Our Ocean Conference in Athens.

Delegates at this year’s event, the theme for which is “Our Ocean: An Ocean of Potential,” include representatives of governments and businesses, as well as activists and experts on marine environments, the Saudi Press Agency reported.

They are discussing topics such as protected marine areas, sustainable blue economies, maritime security, the relationship between oceans and climate change, sustainable fishing, and ways to combat marine pollution. Other issues to be addressed during the conference include sustainable tourism in coastal areas and on islands, ways to reduce plastic and microplastic pollution in marine environments, green shipping, and the green transition in the Mediterranean.

The Saudi delegation at the two-day event is led by the CEO of the National Center for Wildlife, Mohammed Qurban. The initiatives in the Kingdom highlighted at the conference revolve around ways to protect oceans and other water resources, and the sustainable utilization of marine resources.

“Our participation in the work of this global conference reflects the Kingdom’s keenness to support the efforts and endeavors aimed at achieving Sustainable Development Goals, protecting the seas, oceans and water resources, and the sustainable use of marine resources in a way that reflects the trends of the Kingdom and (its) Vision 2030 (development plan) to support environmental protection efforts,” said Qurban.

He highlighted several key national projects that are underway, including the Saudi Green Initiative, which aims to expand protected areas of the Kingdom to encompass 30 percent of its total land and sea territory, and plant 100 million mangrove trees by 2030.

“The Kingdom remains resolute in its mission to safeguard nature and its invaluable ecological treasures, with a special emphasis on the Red Sea region,” Qurban said. “We stand ready to deploy all necessary resources and efforts toward sustainable conservation endeavors.”

Participation in forums such as the Our Ocean Conference encourages the invaluable sharing of knowledge, a cross-pollination of ideas, and collaborations in the creation of innovative ways to tackle environmental challenges and promote sustainable practices, he added.

During the previous eight events since the conference was launched in 2014 by the US to fill a gap in global ocean governance at the time, participants have announced 2,160 commitments worth $130 billion, organizers said.

Other items on the agenda this year include ways in which oceans will meet the needs of future generations, ways to encourage governments, businesses and other organizations to adopt long-term commitments that have positive effects on oceans, and efforts to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals relating to oceans, seas and marine resources.