The obvious advantage of Saudi Arabia’s cultural tourism

In this file photo, people are seen outside the Souq Okaz theater in Taif. (SPA)

A recent road trip from Riyadh to Mecca revealed great potential for cultural and historical tourism in this part of Saudi Arabia. Heritage tourism, as this activity is sometimes known, is a niche but an important part of tourism. This is particularly relevant for Saudi Arabia, which has a rich history but was mostly closed to tourists. This has changed and tourism figures prominently in Vision 2030 as one of the main sources of the Kingdom’s economic diversification plans.
In September 2019, Saudi Arabia introduced the category of tourist visas, which can be obtained online by citizens of around 50 countries. It also established the Tourism Development Fund to support investments in this sector and increase its share of gross domestic product to over 10% by 2030. In April 2020, the Saudi Tourism Commission was transformed into a ministry full-fledged and, during the G20 presidency last year, the tourism task force presented the country’s ambitious tourism plans.
For Saudi tourism, the pandemic has had a silver lining. With overseas travel being severely restricted to limit the spread of the virus, Saudi vacationers traveling abroad were forced to change their plans and domestic tourism flourished as a result. While there is still a long way to go, all the necessary ingredients to make Saudi Arabia a preferred destination for history buffs and exotic cultural tourists are here.
During my trip to Mecca last month, I had the privilege of having an informed guide, my wife, a history teacher at the university, and children deeply interested in their heritage. We passed by several historical monuments of great interest, starting with Riyadh itself. Despite its sparkling skyscrapers, wide boulevards and modern architecture, it is an ancient city that dates back thousands of years, albeit with different names. Just outside the city, for example, are the battlefields of wars waged over the centuries. To the north are large cemeteries containing the bodies of hundreds of soldiers killed in 7th century battles. To the west of the city, there are visible remains of battles fought against foreign troops in the 19th century.
Further west are the remains of forts, observation towers and other sites with thousands of inscriptions and artefacts on events in pre-Islamic history, some written in ancient regional scriptures that only experts can decipher. Many of these sites were looted in the past before the authorities could protect them. In 2018, the Tourism and National Heritage Commission revealed that it had successfully returned around 32,000 historical artifacts that had been extirpated from the country, in addition to 23,000 pieces that had been illegally removed from their original sites but who were still in the Kingdom.
Closer to Taif is the ancient Okaz souk fair, which flourished before Islam and continued for many years thereafter. It was one of the 20 major fairs held throughout the Arabian Peninsula. They were held every year for four sacred months, when, by tradition, no combat of any kind could take place between individuals, cities or tribes, whatever the reasons or provocations.

All the ingredients necessary to make the Kingdom a preferred destination for history buffs and exotic cultural tourists are there.

Dr Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg

The Okaz Fair flourished from around AD 500 and became the best known of these fairs. Like many ancient fairs, it had three main characteristics: commerce, poetry and oratory, and pacification. Poets from near and far recited their epic poems before respected literary judges, who would choose the best ode of the year to hang in the Holy Kaaba until the following year’s competition. Cleverly and meticulously composed, many of these poems are still read, appreciated and sometimes memorized by many. Great speakers would also give well-crafted speeches at these fairs. Some of their wise comments have also been immortalized.
Caravans from other parts of the peninsula and neighboring regions synchronized their trips with the dates of fairs to buy and sell goods. Wise and respected elders also attended the fairs to arbitrate tribal disputes, some lasting decades, which were quite common in pre-Islamic times. Mediators sometimes needed to raise funds to pay in reparation to end a conflict. One of the famous anti-war odes from this period dealt with a successful mediation that ended a bloody 70-year tribal conflict.
Okaz flourished for several hundred years, but its interest died out for centuries. In 2007, Saudi Arabia relaunched the fair and it is now held annually. As in the past, poetry and arts and crafts are important elements of the fair, which welcomes visitors from all over the world.
In Mecca, Medina, Taif, Jeddah and its surroundings, there are many sites that could be of interest to historical, cultural and heritage tourists. These are apart from religious shrines and monuments which have their own visiting rules and are regulated according to ancient customs, so they should be discussed separately.
We also noted the great physical diversity along the Riyadh-Makkah road, from the central plateau where Riyadh is located to the towering Taif Mountains, which rise over 2,000 km above sea level, the vast plains between the two and the lower Red Sea. coast. As a result, temperatures were diverse as well: While Riyadh and Jeddah baked in the 1940s, hill stations enjoyed mild weather with temperatures among teenagers. Tourists in search of cooler weather and cultural diversity have flocked to these resorts.
As Saudi Arabia completes the tourism infrastructure foreseen in Vision 2030, historic tourism is emerging as an important niche where the Kingdom has a clear comparative advantage. The considerable investments required to develop tourism provide significant opportunities for Saudi and foreign companies to build housing and provide guides and other ancillary services suitable for heritage tourism.

• Dr Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is CCG Deputy Secretary General for Political Affairs and Negotiations, and Columnist for Arab News. The opinions expressed in this article are personal and do not necessarily represent the views of the GCC.

Twitter: @ abuhamad1

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the editors in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Arab News

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