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In a Kingdom of Oil and Sand, Saudis Find New Places to Play

That Oasis is No Mirage

Tourism in Saudi Arabia? Most Westerners imagine plodding through the scorched desert of the Empty Quarter, like a sunburned Lawrence of Arabia.

But the secret is getting out, and Saudis are the first to proclaim it: Forget the desert mirage, the southern Asir Mountains are green and striking and moist with rain.

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Holidaymakers are packing up GMC Suburbans and taking their families from the heat, humidity, and modern grime of Riyadh and Jeddah.

Saudis, once far more wealthy with petrodollars, used to travel abroad to the United States and Europe, spending millions at five-star hotels and on glittering gifts from the West.

They still do. But more and more, they are also discovering the beauty of their own vast country, enjoying the feeling of being at home and at ease with the strict Islamic rules they are used to.

"It's better to have vacation here than to go outside and spend money," says Abdulaziz al-Musa, a teacher who has brought his large family to the Al-Sooda Mountain near Abha - Saudi Arabia's highest peak - four years in a row.

He sits on a rug laid down beneath a tree, playing cards and surrounded with the paraphernalia of a Saudi picnic: soccer ball, half-gallon bottle of soda, jar of sugar, tea pot and cups, a small propane tank for boiling water - and many children.

The women, draped all in black and wearing veils as required by Saudi custom, sit some way apart.

The word "paradise" might be an exaggeration, but the hilltop campground is full of joyous picnickers. Children play on tricycles and run wild; adults talk and relax.

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"There is privacy and understanding of Islamic culture - this is very important," says Mr. al-Musa. He had two vehicles shipped here from Riyadh and flew to Abha with his family of 14. "We feel safe here."

To attract Saudi tourists, the governor of the Asir region, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, has focused on building infrastructure that takes advantage of the temperate climate and mountain scenery.

Tourism boom

Prince Khalid directs Syahya, the national company for tourism, which was set up in 1991 and has invested $350 million in the development of the Asir region. A system of cable cars stretches between the Abha hills, and a new five-star hotel - reputed to be the finest in the kingdom and appropriately called the Abha Palace - has just been completed.

If Saudi Arabia ever opens its doors to foreign tourists, this area will be ready to please. Already, officials say that the number of Saudi visitors has doubled from last year. A property boom is under way, with "For Sale" signs dotting the landscape and building of spacious villas and apartments in full swing.

For the average Saudi, however, the pleasures of this holiday are found in day trips to the mountains.

"Most agree that it is 100 percent better to be here in Saudi than outside," says Hussein Makfour, the assistant to the mayor of Abha, as he sits in a circle with the men of his family. The huge family Suburban is parked a few feet away. Tea and dates are served.

"Outside [the country], you can't sit with your family without interruption," he says, to the nods of the others. "Here is our culture, Islamic things. Women can take their time with their veil. It is much more comfortable in every respect."

His older brother Saad, dressed in a gold-brocaded robe and leaning on a cushion, agrees. He is happy that Saudis are flocking to his home area.

"I welcome them anytime, and welcome them more when they come," he says with a smile. "I've been all over the Maghreb [North Africa], Turkey, Spain, and the Arab world, and I found the same things I can find here. So why should I go anywhere else?"

For children, there are dozens of dirt tracks with little fat-wheeled buggies and motor scooters for racing. Carnivals keep the adrenaline pumping. Camels provide loping rides and a glimpse of the Bedouin life that marked the very recent past for many Saudi families.

Charm of past

Officials are pushing the growing charm of history, which coincides with a broader reflection on the past in Saudi Arabia. One entrepreneur and collector, Dhafir bin Hamsan, has created a traditional village to attract Saudi tourists.

Its centerpiece is a 60-foot-tall stone building built in traditional fashion and full of old photographs.

History is his passion, which he has shared with visitors since he opened Aug. 10. He has been collecting local antique artifacts for 20 years and building the village for five. To offer encouragement, Prince Khalid gave Mr. Hamsan the land for the village.

"We are the head of Islam [with the two holiest sites of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia], so we must rely on our tradition," says Hamsan. "It is what we have, and Saudis are very, very interested."

As this region gains in popularity, it has also become a source of longing for children waiting for their summer vacations, much as Walt Disney World often is to American kids.

"My son is waiting all year to come to Abha, where we can be a family," says Aboud Makfour, cousin of Hussein, from steamy Jeddah. "It is like a dream."

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