Rob L. Wagner روب لستر واقنر

March 21, 2016

Beyond Pilgrimages and Religious Tourism, Saudi Arabia is Opening Up its Remote Family-Friendly Destinations

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By Rob L. Wagner

Thomson Reuters/Salaam Gateway

21 March 2016

The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage is tapping into the rapidly growing number of foreign and domestic tourists to develop the more remote areas of the country.

Although the movements of hajj pilgrims are restricted to Mecca, Jeddah and Medina during hajj, umrah pilgrims are free to explore other areas of the country. And they are increasingly exploring the areas around Medina.

Three destinations are especially attracting increasing tourist attention: Yanbu to the west of Medina; Tabuk to its north, with its rich Hejaz Railway history and its proximity to the centuries-old hajj trail from Syria through to Medina; and Mada’in Saleh between Tabuk and the city of Medina, with its pre-Islamic archaeological wonders.

‘BEST-KEPT TOURISM SECRET’

Of the three destinations, Yanbu is Saudi Arabia’s best-kept tourism secret. Lying on the north coast of the Red Sea, Yanbu is a booming industrial city once known only to expatriate oil workers and Bedouin tribes. It is fast becoming the new go-to family-friendly tourist destination for Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign visitors.

Yanbu has benefitted from the ripple effect of larger numbers of foreign tourists, 15.1 million of whom arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2014, up from 13.4 million in 2013, according to the latest statistics available from the Saudi Commission on Tourism and National Heritage.

Veteran divers who once favored areas around Jeddah are heading for the coast around Yanbu, thanks to its unspoiled beaches, the largely unexplored soft coral reefs and crystal clear waters.

“We have divers come in with high expectations,” said Ahmed Al-Saidi, manager of Dream Diver, which is situated in the center of the city of about 200,000. “We have to deliver.”

All-day trips offer an underwater photographer’s paradise, including the Seven Sisters coral reef and Marker Numbers 32, 39 and 41, which all have an abundance of unspoiled soft coral reefs bathed in brilliant colors and populated by barracuda, bonito tuna, squirrelfish and bigeye. Al-Saidi said families are encouraged to take the all-day trips as long as they are certified through PADI.

FAMILY-FRIENDLY

Yanbu’s attraction is not only for its diving but also for its resorts and for the privacy it offers families. Until 2010 the city was an afterthought for tourists since its emphasis was on oil production and providing accommodation but little entertainment for expatriate workers. That changed dramatically when the Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu implemented a 1.4 billion riyal ($375 million) renovation project to refurbish the seafront, provide infrastructure to improve the primary and service roads, and build a women’s college.

The seafront project covers an 11-kilometer stretch of beach that has boosted the local fledgling tourism sector and created jobs for Saudis. The Royal Commission has planted some 22,000 trees and 200,000 flowers along nine kilometers of King Abdul Aziz Road. The expansive Fairouz Gardens feature jogging paths, rest areas, children’s recreational facilities and gardens.

Yet Yanbu remains uncharted territory for tour operators, and support services for Saudi tourism remain in their infancy. Discovering the pleasures of the small city happens largely through word-of-month, with tour operators yet to take full advantage of the burgeoning interest in the area.

Hussain Muntaqa, an agent with Ace Travel, which has offices in Jeddah and Yanbu, said most tourism companies in the kingdom do not offer specific travel packages to the area.

“Hotel reservations can be made and arrangements for diving can also be made, but there are no specific travel packages to Yanbu,” he said.

It is only in the past two years that the resorts have seen significant numbers of tourists arrive, he added.

But dive organizer Al-Saidi said that travelers seeking halal and family-friendly entertainment are moving from the conventional tourist sights in Jeddah and Riyadh and are seeking more relaxed and private venues to spend with their families.

© SalaamGateway.com 2016

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