Saudi summer festival attracts domestic and foreign tourists
ABHA, Saudi Arabia - At the top of a chain of green mountains in Saudi Arabia, a month-long festival attracted a varied crowd of yoga enthusiasts, adventure seekers, tourists and Saudi families, many of whom wore colourful flower crowns in an area where the kingdom is looking for ways and means to consolidate its new image and establish tourism.
Al-Souda Season Festival, which ran throughout August, allowed visitors to discover a unique region in Saudi Arabia and participate in various activities, such as hiking, mountain biking, paragliding, horse riding and bungee jumping. Thousands attended concerts by Middle East performers.
Saudi women of various ages using ropes to move from one mountain to the next and attending concerts in a remote small Saudi village represented a stark departure from the strict policies of conservative currents that had banned concerts and gender mixing as well as sports for women in the kingdom.
The reform plan is being pushed by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who looks to diversify the country’s economy in the face of falling oil prices.
Increasing domestic spending and opening the country to foreign tourists are ways to create jobs for millions of young Saudis expected to enter the job market in the coming years.
Hossam al-Din al-Madani, who oversaw Al-Souda Festival, said the event attracted 12,000-15,000 visitors a day. Most were Saudi nationals but there were also many foreign tourists, he said.
Unlike in the main cities in Saudi Arabia, which have limited space for outdoor sports, especially for women, who must wear abayas in public, Saudi women in Al-Souda were clad in jeans and sneakers under their abayas and were climbing mountains. Many observed the Islamic dress code by covering their faces and hair.
Al-Souda village, in south-western Asir, enjoys mild weather in August when temperatures hover around 22 degrees Celsius, while in Riyadh or Jeddah summer temperatures exceed 43 degrees. In winter, snow falls on parts of the region’s mountain range, making it a year-round tourist attraction.
Al-Souda is in part of the Sarawat Mountain range in the south-western Arabian Peninsula at about 3,000 metres above sea level. The mountains are covered with green juniper trees and the area is home to Hamadryas baboons, which were kept away from the festival with the help of the South Africa-based Human Wildlife Solutions.
“I’ve never thought that my country has such a rich nature,” said Noura al-Muammar from Jeddah. “It’s amazing for us to discover and see the different cultures, landscapes and weather in our beautiful Saudi region.”
In the nearby village of Rijal Alma, men used to wear wreaths made from local flowers and herbs. To this day, visitors are welcomed and presented with similar wreaths and treated to enchanting local tribal dances, while sipping coffee and tea. In the evening, the village’s traditional clay buildings and distinctive stone and wooden structures dating back 500 years are adorned with bright, coloured lights.
The festival attracted sports enthusiasts, including practitioners of wingsuit flying. Saudi media reported that British adventurer and aerospace engineer Angelo Grubisic died at the festival during a jump along a mountain slope when he encountered difficulties in reaching the landing site while zipping through the air at a speed of about 160 kilometres per hour.
The festival was less than 50km from the Abha International Airport, which has been targeted by Yemeni rebels. However, visitors at the festival said they had felt safe.
“I’ve never felt this safe before,” said Paris Vera, a 24-year-old American visitor. “The city is full of life. I was walking down the streets at 1 and 2am and having tea with the locals. Obviously, there are a lot of misconceptions (about Saudi Arabia) coming from the United States and I’m here to show and prove that these concepts are incorrect and I hope everyone gets a chance to visit this place one day.”
The atmosphere during the festival was so peaceful that Walid al-Qaed, who runs a Saudi hiking company, had an early morning meditation session for customers on top of the mountain.
“We start our morning with a meditation session in the midst of this wonderful environment where we thank God for this blessing and, when we finish, we eat local bread with honey and help visitors enjoy nature and forget the rest of the world and live in the moment,” Qaed said.
The festival had concerts by top Middle Eastern stars, including Emirati singer Ahlam and Iraqi singer Kadim Al Saher. Organisers said the performances attracted thousands of fans and Al Saher’s concert made 1.5 million riyals ($400,000) in ticket sales.
The festival is one of 11 happening in different parts of Saudi Arabia this year. The initiative, dubbed Saudi Seasons, aims to develop tourism and provide Saudis with temporary and permanent jobs.
Madani said at least 515 young men and women had been recruited from the community to help with the month-long event and local businesses received a boost by working food carts and providing other services.