Saudi tour guide’s labor of love showcasing Saudi Arabia’s wonders to world

18/09/20

Saudi Arabia has unlimited tourism potential thanks to its beaches, islands, plains, mountains, and deserts along with its distinctive and unique cultural heritage and civilization, says Al-Took. (Supplied)
  • Khaled Al-Took still learning after 2 decades at center of Saudi Arabia’s tourism development journey

MAKKAH: For Saudi tour guide Khaled Al-Took a career helping to showcase the Kingdom’s natural and cultural treasures to the world has been more than just a job — it has been a labor of love.

After more than two decades in the role, he has not only become a walking encyclopedia on Saudi people, customs, and traditions but has also witnessed a seismic change in the country’s approach to home and foreign tourism.

Opening up the Kingdom to tourists from around the world has been one of the cornerstones of the Vision 2030 reform plan to boost economic growth.

And Al-Took has been a key player in the nation’s journey of transformation.

Speaking to Arab News about his experiences in the sector, he said that the main mission of a tour guide was to execute the agreement signed between a travel operator and their customer.

“A tour guide has many responsibilities because they are effectively the ambassador of their country and region before the visiting tourists. They must represent that region and do their best to convey its true image,” he said.

He added that tour guides played a significant role in shaping the whole visitor experience and must possess an array of skills to meet with tourist expectations.

It was important for them to be familiar with program itineraries and timings and be able to pass on facts, figures, and stories about historic and cultural attractions.

“Another feature that characterizes the tour guide, is their ability to depict the personality of the guest and know when to speak and when to remain silent,” he said.

Al-Took pointed out that one of the aims of a good tour guide should be to help create lasting memories for visitors. It was their responsibility to do detailed background research on destinations and attractions in order to be able to pass on accurate information and informed comment.

“The best way to shed light on the beauty of any tourist attraction is to present it as it is with all its genuine facts, leaving the final decision to the recipient,” added Al-Took.

Saudi Arabia has unlimited tourism potential thanks to its beaches, islands, plains, mountains, and deserts along with its distinctive and unique cultural heritage and civilization, says Al-Took. (Supplied)

His introduction to the job came about by pure coincidence more than 20 years ago.

“I was passionate about internal travel and getting to know the cities and regions of my country. I was impressed by the cultural diversity and different environments we have.

“So, I completely devoted myself to this work, driven by my desire to explore its depths and intensively learn about the ancient civilizations and their relationship to the present, as well as the monuments and effects that stand as a valuable witness to the richness of our civilization and culture.

“Throughout my years in this work I have constantly been learning, and I am still learning and discovering. I am an insatiable learner. During every visit I make a point, whether alone or with tourists, to learn something new by unravelling new facts about something I perhaps had not noticed before or through remarks made by the tourists,” he said.

Al-Took noted that tour groups often spotted fine detail that a guide may have missed.

“God has created us in different tribes and races in order for us to meet each other, thus exchanging our respective knowledge. Through these trips, during which have I got to know many people from different cultures, many questions come to mind that I convey to my guests. They rejoice when we find a cultural or heritage meeting point between us.

“During one visit, I found out through speaking to a guest from New Zealand, that there was a meeting point between indigenous people and Gulf culture in general and our culture in Saudi Arabia in particular, which was greeting by the touching of noses,” he added.

Early in his career, the number of tourist guides in Saudi Arabia could be “counted on the fingers of one hand,” which meant tour operators employed them on a wide variety of trips including cruises, and day tours of Jeddah, Duba, Dubai, and Bahrain.

“I also led trips specialized in tracking the ancient trade routes from the south of the Arabian Peninsula and Dubai to the Kingdom’s border with Jordan in the north, as well as following some routes heading east and south to the Saudi border with Yemen and Oman deep in the Empty Quarter.”

Al-Took has also organized cultural trips in regions throughout the Kingdom, highlighting ancient civilizations, inscriptions, and spectacular rock structures.

“I had the opportunity to collaborate with celebrities as well as other people from all nationalities, and all of them agreed they had a positive impression about Saudi Arabia since it is a large country holding a lot of unknowns.

“Many people assert that the stereotype they know about Saudi Arabia quickly fades away on their first visit, and the deeper they go the more they discover that everything they had read in the press, old books, or reports from contemporary travelers was different from what they saw themselves.

Saudi Arabia has unlimited tourism potential thanks to its beaches, islands, plains, mountains, and deserts along with its distinctive and unique cultural heritage and civilization, says Al-Took. (Supplied)

“They often find that the stories they have been told are incorrect and quite opposite to their own experience on the ground. There is a cultural richness here and honest, welcoming people,” he added.

Many Saudis, he said, were not convinced or aware of the potential of tourism in their country but one of the positives to come out of the COVID-19  pandemic was the opportunity for people to get out and about locally and learn more about the Kingdom’s natural and cultural attractions.

“The Ministry of Tourism has played an instrumental role in highlighting these capabilities through a strong marketing campaign aimed at introducing Saudis and expats to these distinctive treasures,” he added.

“Some people who visited the Asir region during this period were shocked and reported that what they saw competed with the likes of Europe, where they used to spend their annual vacations.”

He pointed out that Saudi Arabia had unlimited tourism potential thanks to its beaches, islands, plains, mountains, and deserts along with its distinctive and unique cultural heritage and civilization.This fabric of different colors and tastes, he said, was a very marketable commodity.

“The culture, civilization, nature and, above all, a generous population unique in its humanity, heritage, and patriotism, all together form distinct and attractive elements put into perspective by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am confident that this emergence will be the beginning of a new destination, and strongly competitive, especially with the government’s orientation to make the tourism industry a source of national income in accordance with Vision 2030, which is not long away from being achieved.”

This article was first published in Arab News

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Al-Fouta’s facelift: Riyadh’s historical district slated for renovation

14/09/20

The buildings are sorely in need of repair to restore them to their former glory, experts say, adding that the project will contribute significantly to the preservation of Saudi culture. (Supplied)

  • Prince Badr said that the restoration process will meet international standards for the restoration of historic buildings

RIYADH: A major project is set to bring back the glory of 15 old palaces in the Kingdom’s capital.

The work is part of broader restoration work in the historical districts of central Riyadh, Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, Minister of Culture and Chairman of the Heritage Authority, announced on Sunday.
Managed by the Ministry of Culture, represented by the Heritage Authority, in partnership with the Royal Commission for Riyadh and the Riyadh municipality, the project comes as part of King Salman’s keenness to preserve Saudi heritage and falls under the direction of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
From 15 palaces, seven in the western district of Al-Fouta date back to 1944, while three in eastern Al-Fouta date back to 1935. The project will also restore five royal palaces: King Fahd Palace, King Abdullah Palace, Princess Haya bint Abdulrahman Palace, Prince Sultan Palace, and Princess Al-Anoud Palace in Dhahira, Al-Fouta, and Umm Salim districts.

The district of Al-Fouta has a charming, antiquated atmosphere that transports the visitor into another era. Here you’ll find the oldest park in Riyadh, Al-Fouta Park, and the historic Red Palace, which was a gift to King Saud from the Kingdom’s founding father, King Abdul Aziz, which opened its doors as a museum in March of last year, as well as mosques and government offices.

FASTFACTS

• The district of Al-Fouta has a charming, antiquated atmosphere that transports the visitor into another era. Here you’ll find the oldest park in Riyadh, Al-Fouta Park, and the historic Red Palace, which was a gift to King Saud from the Kingdom’s founding father, King Abdul Aziz, which opened its doors as a museum in March of last year, as well as mosques and government offices.

• The work, which envisages the comprehensive restoration of the buildings in two phases over 24 months, starting in January 2021, will commence by conducting a complete study of all heritage buildings of importance in the center of Riyadh.

The buildings are sorely in need of repair to restore them to their former glory, experts say. Rana Alkadi, a specialist in heritage architecture, said that the project will contribute significantly to the preservation of Saudi culture.
“Reviving the heart of Riyadh city heritage will preserve its identity and enhance its historical cultural bonds to the past,” she said.
Saudi historian Majed Al-Ahdal called the renovation “an important step forward,” emphasizing the importance of respecting and understanding one’s past to fully appreciate the future.
“I would argue that the future is open to those who know their past well and use the insights the past provides to move forward with confidence. Though renovating the buildings may seem like a purely aesthetic endeavor on the surface, architecture is one of the most fundamental ways of measuring urban progress,” he said.
“These palaces oversaw countless important events and dates, and thus fully deserve to be restored to their former glory.”
Prince Badr expressed his gratitude for the support provided by King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to the culture and heritage sector.
In a press statement issued today, the minister said that the restoration process will meet international standards for the restoration of historic buildings.
The work, which envisages the comprehensive restoration of the buildings in two phases over 24 months, starting in January 2021, will commence by conducting a complete study of all heritage buildings of importance in the center of Riyadh.
The project aims to preserve the heritage buildings of architectural and historical importance and transform them into an economic, social, cultural, and tourism resource, reasserting their cultural identity in the context of the history of Riyadh.
The ministry’s efforts to preserve Saudi architectural heritage have increased significantly over the past year.
On Thursday, Prince Badr announced in a tweet that: “Having previously won membership on both UNESCO’s Executive Board and the World Heritage Committee, Member States have now elected KSA for membership of the Intangible Cultural Heritage Committee.”
In 2019, Arab News reported that SR50 million ($13.33 million) had been pledged by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to support the restoration of Jeddah’s historic Al-Balad district, a UNESCO Cultural Heritage site.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Saudi Arabia’s ‘natural sculptures’ with a 15,000-year-old secret

12/09/20

The artistic sculptures have been formed by erosion factors over the years, giving the viewer a magical sight. They act as wonderful tourist attractions where visitors can marvel at the beauty, says an archaeology expert. (Supplied)

This article was first published in Arab News

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The Place: Rock inscriptions of Al-Shuwaymis, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Saudi Arabia’s Hail

05/09/20

Photo/Saudi Tourism
  • The inscriptions feature art characterized by images of humans, animals, and plant life including camels, horses, goats, and palm trees

The rock art of Al- Shuwaymis, 250 kilometers southeast of Hail, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the largest open stone inscription museum in the Arabian Peninsula and one of the largest open natural history museums in the world, with an area of more than 50 square kilometers.
Al-Shuwaymis is located on the edge of Hurrat Annar, near Al-Makhit Valley, which separates Hurrat Laila from Hurrat Annar. It is also near Al-Sabaq, the area that witnessed the longest battle in Arab history, “Sa’es and Al-Ghabra.”
The history of the petroglyphs dates back to the Neolithic period. The inscriptions feature art characterized by images of humans, animals, and plant life including camels, horses, goats, and palm trees. There are also sculptures of men riding camels, in reference to the trade caravan activity, and sculptures of life-sized humans and animals.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Saudis try sandboarding as domestic tourism booms

04/09/20

While the international airport and borders remain closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Saudis and expats turn to domestic tourism, many heading for a sandboarding experience on the dunes of the “Saed” desert area, 110 km east of the capital Riyadh.

This article was first published in Arab News

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The Place: Zabal Castle in Saudi Arabia’s Sakaka

29/08/20

Photo/Saudi Tourism
  • Aside from being an archaeological marvel, the fort sits on the highest point in the area, offering panoramic views of the city

Built on the ruins of a Nabataean castle outside the city of Sakaka in northwest Saudi Arabia, Zabal Castle has one gate and four surveillance towers and is one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.

The castle is believed to have been built 300 years ago, and is open to anyone interested in the region’s rich Arab history. Its mud and stone walls tell tales of the past.

Aside from being an archaeological marvel, the fort sits on the highest point in the area, offering panoramic views of the city.

This photograph was taken as part of the Colors of Saudi collection.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Saudi woman explorer wishes to visit Empty Quarter again

Time: 26 August, 2020

I live for such adventures and experiences, says Azza Al-Rashidi. (Supplied)
  • ‘I have always had a strong sense of adventure ever since I could remember,’ says Azza Al-Rashidi

Azza Al-Rashidi’s experience of crossing the Empty Quarter in 26 days, which she describes as “a dream come true” serves as an example for others especially women to follow in her footsteps and explore the marvels of the huge desert.
Al-Rashidi, an ambitious Saudi woman with a strong sense of adventure, was the only female in a team of explorers who had joined her from different parts of the world on that memorable trip.
Recalling her 2019 experience, Al-Rashidi said she would love to join an expedition to the Empty Quarter again.
Al-Rub Al-Khali, which is translated as the Empty Quarter, is a desert that occupies most of the southern third of the Arabian Peninsula. It occupies 650,000 square kilometers. It is so big that it includes parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and Yemen.

Azza Al-Rashidi told Arab News: “The earth is my starting point, and my ambition goes beyond the sky, determination and confidence paddle my boat in the sea of achievement. I was born adventurous; I have always had a strong sense of adventure ever since I could remember. I live for such adventures and experiences.”
She said it was an adventurer’s dream to explore this mysterious sandy expanse, and that her background in social sciences had further sparked her curiosity for the desert.
“Standing in the desert of the Empty Quarter, learning about its natural environment and discovering its ancient geological history represents an urgent desire of every traveler and adventurer. Crossing it was a wish fulfilled and my desire to explore it increased because of my specialization and academic qualifications, social sciences, as this includes history, geography, science and sociology.”
Al-Rashidi traveled with Rakayib Caravan and it was the first trip ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to explore the desert.
“Rakayib’s first trip is a journey that was ordered by the crown prince to discover the Empty Quarter after the journey that took place in the time of King Abdul Aziz in 1932, 88 years ago, by the explorer Harry St. John Bridger Philby, and to learn about its geographical nature,” she explained. “From here, the convoy set out to cross this desert, which makes up a quarter of the Kingdom’s size, with follow-up from the crown prince, the efforts of supervisors from the
Camel Club, the leader of the trip, Maj. Gen. Abdul Aziz Al-Obaida, the organizers and collaborators from the Saudi Geological Survey, and us, 66 adventurers and travelers.”
The trip lasted 26 days. Its starting point was Ubar and the endpoint was Yabreen. Four of the days included training on how to prepare the camel for riding, how to feed it, and follow-ups on providing water for the animal.
The training also included guidance on how to use the sleeping bag, the tent, and even learning words that contributed to interactions with the camel.

“I arrived from Jeddah by plane to Sharourah, Najran, and from there I and those who were with me took cars that were there to receive us. They transported us to Al-Kharkhir, we reached Ubar, and then we arrived at the camp, which was prepared for a gathering of participants coming from inside the Kingdom and from outside.”
Al-Rashidi said 21 foreign countries were taking part and that participants had something in common: A love for adventure and a passion for achieving that goal.
Participants were divided into seven groups and were given instructions and rules. “We set out for a new life in which we adapted to an environment that differed from what we knew and lived in,” she added.
They had three hiking days and a camping day to rest and recharge, starting the first day by traveling a distance of 15 km by camel. The distance increased from 30 to 45 km in the last two days, ending the journey by crossing 55 km and traveling 8 hours a day.
The journey started at 7:30 a.m. and went on until sunset, and there was an hour’s break at noon.
“During the trip, we arrived from Ubar to areas of mineral-rich water wells in the region, such as Bir Nifa and other stations at which the caravan stopped by following its route until we reached Yabreen. It was breathtaking. Looking at the dimensions of this desert draws me, for its land is the bed of the Tethys Ocean, which has receded during the Earth’s various geological times, leaving evidence of snails, shells, fossils, and millions of insects. The desert that has the four largest sand terrains in the world, whose height reaches between 250 to 300 meters.”
At the end of the trip, the adventurers were received by the deputy governor of the Eastern Province, Prince Ahmed bin Fahd bin Salman.
Al-Rashidi received a certificate of honor, a medal, and a Rakayib Caravan medal.

This article was first published in Arab News

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Mideast travel group’s Saudi odyssey

16/08/20

The association will provide services to help Saudi travelers plan their trips. (SPA)

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The Place: The Maghaer Shuaib located west of Tabuk

15/08/20

Photo/Saudi Tourism

This photograph was taken by Safyah Sendy as part of the Colors of Saudi competition
The Maghaer Shuaib seems to appear from nowhere in the reddish desert west of Tabuk — its elegantly carved facades and tombs built into the sandstone rocks recalling Petra in Jordan and Hegra at AlUla.
Having fled Egypt, Moses lived here for a decade under the patronage of the Prophet Shuaib, who had been impressed by Moses’ chivalry and offered his daughter’s hand in marriage.
Moses eventually returned to Egypt, but it’s easy to imagine that this beautiful place stayed with him. This photograph was taken by Safyah Sendy as part of the Colors of Saudi competition.

This article was first published in Arab News

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ThePlace: Hejaz Railway Museum in western Saudi Arabia

Time: 08 August, 2020

Photo/Saudi Tourism
  • The Hejaz railway was a monumental project proposed in the early 20th century by the Ottoman Empire

Located just outside Hegra is Hejaz Railway Museum, which showcases part of the Hejaz Railway network that once ran through the Hejaz, or western Saudi Arabia.
Guests can learn how important the transportation system was to Islam and view some of the remains of AlUla station, including original tracks and trains. The original station, which was bombed by the British in 1917, still stands in AlUla. Tourists can take photos of the compound but are not allowed to enter.
The Hejaz railway was a monumental project proposed in the early 20th century by the Ottoman Empire. The line was meant to make pilgrimages to Madinah easier for Muslims in outlying countries, but because of its enormous overheads, and complications with building after the start of World War I, the line was shut down and never reinstated.
The remains of the line, which span from Damascus to Madinah, are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are one of the most treasured landmarks in Saudi Arabia.

This article was first published in Arab News

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