Natural attractions are sure winner with tourists

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 28 September, 2009, 12:00am

Saudi Arabia is the newly discovered gem of Gulf tourism. The Kingdom has been practically off limits for many years, but is gradually easing visa restrictions and welcoming organised tours in ever increasing numbers. It is the natural attractions that exercise the greatest lure.

While desert covers large swathes of Saudi Arabia, many parts are verdant. Near Al-Baha, Raghdan Forest spreads over three square kilometres and is crisscrossed by winding roads and pathways. Slightly larger, but in the same vicinity, Shahba Forest is a thick mass of pine trees and juniper bushes. The most spectacular of a trio of soft adventure parks is the Al-Geme Forest, which is traversed by a cable car.

There's tougher walking further afield, namely at Nawan al-Ala, a six-kilometre-long valley near Asham and the Al-Shaira recreational park. More spectacular still is the Wadi Melil, a valley at the foot of Mount Shada Al-Ala shaded by statuesque trees growing out of white soil.

More adventurous activities are on offer in the Asir mountains. The area around Al-Soudah is especially good for mountain biking, the cliffs of Al-Habala are tailor-made for rock climbing, and the thermals near Tathlith co-operate superbly with hot-air ballooning. The spectacle of the desert thousands of feet below, stretching away to the horizon as the sun rises, is magnificent.

Jubba is the ideal base for safari operations in the Nafud Al-Kabir Desert. The Bedouin are legendary camel drivers and can also act as guides for trips lasting up to a week. Visits to Bedouin camps for coffee or a meal grant an insight into a way of life that has changed little over the generations, and which fascinated such legendary explorers as Wilfred Thesiger. It is advisable to secure permission before taking photographs or videos.

While motor vehicles have become the preferred means of transport in Saudi Arabia, the camel retains a special place in Bedouin culture. On the outskirts of Buraydah, in Al-Qassim, there's a thriving daily livestock market, with camels, sheep and goats for auction. Traders hawk locally made leather goods, such as bridles, halters and saddles, or woven goods such as blankets.

The latest sport to hit the deserts is dune driving, known locally as tat'aees. Organised dune-driving expeditions are available for visitors. However, tat'aees rallies are also popular spectator events. Four-wheel drives, pick-up trucks and quad bikes compete over mountainous dunes, regularly attracting crowds of thousands.

Eco-tourism is winning growing acceptance. The deserts of the northern provinces are home to wolves, falcons, gazelles, hyena, rabbits and lizards. However, the most noteworthy inhabitant is the Houbarra bustard.

This delicate bird is the subject of a continuing battle by the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development to rescue it from extinction. Like the stone curlew, the desert hare and the gazelle, the Houbarra bustard is the traditional prey of the Bedouin. Weighing up to 3kg, capable of outsmarting and outflying all but the best falcons, and camouflaged as to be virtually invisible on the ground, it is also judged to provide huntsmen with the best sport. Today, with the Houbarra population dwindling fast, hunting the bird is permitted in Saudi Arabia only during a short winter season, and a total ban applies in protected areas such as Harrat al-Harrah.