Summer is here: Where is local tourism?

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It is “officially” summer in Saudi Arabia! Families are looking for a “cool” vacation in their hometown, or anywhere else. Warm to hot places, like Jeddah, Yanbu and Jizan, are competing with green, rainy and crisp Taif, Baha and Abha. Events, entertainment and shopping centers are as important for vacationers cool temperatures.

Dubai, Bahrain and Cairo are living proof that hot weather can be beaten with good programs. Air-conditioning in mega malls, theaters, cinemas and theme parks is taking care of the heat and humidity issue. Tourists need more than green mountains and refreshing weather. Life is about variety; tourism is about action.

Saudi Vision 2030 has realized all the above. Therefore, one of its top goals is to increase the number of domestic tourists and bring more from abroad. We do have a lot to offer, in addition to religious tourism. However, nature, history and culture need good infrastructure, marketing, management and guidance. Creative solutions and offerings can easily make up for shortcomings.

When Prince Sultan Bin Salman took over the newly established Presidency of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (renamed the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage), in 2000, we lacked some basics, such as tourist guiding and ecotourism.

In recent years, an elite group of Saudis have been trained by experts from the World Federation of Tour Guides Association. They, in turn, are giving training in tourist guiding to qualified fellow Saudis.

The goal is to have licensed tour guides lead groups and delegations during their visits to Saudi cities and rural areas and, in a professional manner, show them historical, cultural and natural attractions, as well as evidence of our progress and development. The guides are encouraged to set up tourist agencies and sign contracts with Haj/Umrah agencies and tour operators, as well as companies in the public and private sectors who are keen to introduce their visitors and foreign employees to our culture and society.

Prince Sultan has also supported rural and farm accommodation, such as housing units in agricultural, natural and historical areas. The Tourism Commission backs personal initiatives and provides pioneers with expertise in management and marketing, plus financial help and soft loans.

Not long ago, I was treated to two enlightening experiences in the fields of tour guiding and ecotourism. As a licensed trainer, I was honored to coach the first tour guides in Jazan region (its capital called Jizan, with an “i”), and was invited to visit the first eco-resort there - the Rawabi Heritage Village of Abu Arish.

In the first experience, I was delighted to feel the flow of enthusiasm of 17 trainees who made up the carefully selected group in the tour guiding course, provided for free by the Tourism Commission. I noted how the people of Jazan enjoy the natural and most important gifts of tour guidance — generosity, hospitality and eagerness to help, tell and please.

In the second experience, Mohammed Jabali surprised me, as it turned out that he was not just a farmer and owner of a heritage village, but also has a long list of agricultural initiatives. Jabali, a graduate of the American Institute of Agriculture in Jordan (1968) managed during his years of service at the Agricultural Research Center in Asir region, and later, as an independent farmer, to cultivate, for the first time, rice, mango and papaya in the rich but virgin Southern lands. Today, he is experimenting with cotton.

With the support of the Governorship of Jazan and the Tourism Commission, he is now completing the first integrated tourist village in the region, containing a farm inn, a heritage market, and an open theater modeled after the famous Nabataean Jerash theater in Jordan.

I also met with the Executive Director of the Tourism Commission branch in Jazan, Rustam Al-Kubaisi, and was delighted to witness the achievements, plans and visions of future projects. The Commission, he explained, cooperates with 15 government agencies, members of the Tourism Development Council, headed by Jazan Governor, Prince Muhammad Bin Nasser Bin Abdulaziz.

In my visit to Jazan I observed the evolution and development of a promising phase in tourism. I hope the private sector keeps pace with government agencies in investment and development, especially in the field of hospitality and entertainment.

If oil is our “Black Gold,” then tourism, ladies and gentleman, is our “Diamond”, which, if well explored and exploited, could provide us with an unending source of income and jobs. It does help that our country is rich in untapped natural resources and unlimited investment opportunities.

Our next summers, I hope, will be more accommodating, enriching ... and local. World discovery will always be an enchanting option, but our national treasures are increasingly the best choice!

— Dr. Khaled Batarfi is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. He can be reached at: Kbatarfi@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter: @kbatarfi


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