A recent road trip from Riyadh to Makkah 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 important part of tourism. It is especially relevant to Saudi Arabia, which has a rich history but was essentially closed off 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 the citizens of some 50 countries. It also established the Tourism Development Fund to support investment in this sector and increase its share of gross domestic product to more than 10 percent by 2030. In April 2020, the Saudi Tourism Commission was turned into a fully-fledged ministry and, during Saudi Arabia’s presidency of the G20 last year, the tourism working group showcased the country’s ambitious tourism plans.
For Saudi tourism, the pandemic has had a silver lining. With foreign travel severely restricted to limit the spread of the virus, Saudi vacationers who used to travel abroad have been forced to change their plans and domestic tourism has flourished as a result. While much still needs to be done, all the right ingredients to make Saudi Arabia a favored destination for history buffs and exotic cultural tourists are there.
On my trip to Makkah last month, I was privileged to have an informed guide, my wife, who is a university history professor, and children who are deeply interested in their heritage. We passed by several historical monuments of great interest, starting with Riyadh itself. Its gleaming skyscrapers, wide boulevards and modern architecture notwithstanding, it is an ancient town that goes back thousands of years, albeit with different names. Just outside the city, for example, lie battlefields from wars fought over the centuries. To the north lie large cemeteries containing the bodies of hundreds of soldiers killed in 7th century battles. To the west of the city, there are visible remnants of battles fought against foreign troops in the 19th century.
Further west are the remnants of forts, observation towers and other sites with thousands of inscriptions and artifacts about events in pre-Islamic history, some written in ancient regional scripts that only experts can decipher. Many of these sites were looted in the past before authorities could protect them. In 2018, the Tourism and National Heritage Commission revealed that it had managed to return about 32,000 historical artifacts that had been spirited out of the country, in addition to 23,000 pieces that were illegally removed from their original sites but were still within the Kingdom.
Closer to Taif is the ancient fair of Souq Okaz, which flourished before Islam and continued for many years afterwards. It was one of about 20 major fairs held throughout the Arabian Peninsula. They were held annually during four sacred months, when, by tradition, no fighting of any kind could take place between individuals, towns or tribes, regardless of the reasons or provocations.
The Okaz fair flourished from about 500 AD and became the best-known of these fairs. Like many of the ancient fairs, it had three main features: Trade, poetry and oratory, and peacemaking. Poets from near and far would recite their epic poems before respected literary judges, who would choose the best ode of the year to be hung in the Holy Kaaba until the next year’s competition. Artfully and meticulously composed, many of these poems are still read, enjoyed and sometimes memorized by many. Great orators would also give well-crafted speeches at these fairs. Some of their wise commentary has also been immortalized.
Caravans from other parts of the peninsula and neighboring regions would time their movements with the dates of the fairs to buy and sell goods. Wise and respected elders would also go to the fairs to mediate in tribal disputes, some lasting for tens of years, which were quite common in pre-Islamic times. Mediators sometimes needed to collect funds to be paid as reparations to end a conflict. One of the famous anti-war odes from that period dealt with a successful mediation that ended a bloody 70-year tribal conflict.
Okaz flourished for several hundred years, but interest in it lapsed for centuries. In 2007, Saudi Arabia revived the fair and it is now held annually. As in the past, poetry and arts and crafts are important components of the fair, which hosts visitors from around the world.
In Makkah, Madinah, Taif, Jeddah and surrounding areas, there are numerous sites that could be of interest to historical, cultural and heritage tourists. These are aside from the religious shrines and monuments that have their own visitation rules and are regulated according to ancient customs, so 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 more than 2,000 km above sea level, the vast plains in between and the low-lying Red Sea coast. Accordingly, temperatures were also diverse: While Riyadh and Jeddah were baking in the 40s, mountain resorts were enjoying balmy weather with temperatures in the teens. Tourists seeking the cooler weather and cultural diversity flocked to these resorts.
As Saudi Arabia completes the tourism infrastructure anticipated in Vision 2030, historical tourism presents itself as an important niche where the Kingdom has a clear comparative advantage. The sizable investments needed to develop tourism provide important opportunities for Saudi and foreign companies to build accommodation and provide guides and other ancillary services suitable for heritage tourism.
• Dr. Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC assistant secretary-general for political affairs and negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent the views of the GCC.
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