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Growing Number of Festivals in Saudi Arabia Aims to Boost Tourism, Local Economy

Saudi Arabia- Janadriyah
Saudi artist paints a mural portrait of King Salman bin Abdulaziz (R), and his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, during the 32nd Janadriyah Culture and Heritage Festival, held on the outskirts of the capital Riyadh on February 17, 2018. Photo AFP

The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) has announced that more than 120 festivals and events will take place in Saudi Arabia in summer 2018, particularly at tourism sites, in an attempt to encourage visits and boost the local economy.

Spanning sports, music, youth, environment, adventure and heritage, among others, the diversity and number of festivals is increasing every year. The most famous of these is Janadriyah, a major cultural festival held for two weeks in February outside the capital Riyadh. A lively, non-religious gathering, the festival mixes horse and camel races with craftsmanship and poetry recitals, showcasing Saudi Arabia’s rich heritage.

Laura Alho, a Finnish travel writer and social media influencer living in Riyadh, described Janadriyah on her travel blog Blue Abaya as ‘the largest festival of its kind in the Gulf, attracting millions of visitors from all over the region each year […] During Janadriyah [in 2017], over 3 million people from all over Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries visited the festival.’

“It’s all a part of Vision 2030 and HRH Crown Prince Mohammed‘s plan to develop Saudi tourism,” Alho said in an interview with Fanack Chronicle of the growing number and diversity of festivals. “[They help to keep] the Saudi and local tourists in the kingdom during holidays by offering them interesting and high-quality activities to do near to their homes. The festivals are also great ways to promote Saudi culture, keep craftsmanship alive and for the younger Saudi generations to value their heritage.”

Some festivals are based on a theme, others on a location or seasonal festivities like Eid. Alho also mentioned the annual King Abdulaziz Camel Festival, a large, free festival that encompasses activities such as a camel beauty contest, an exhibition, a caravan experience and workshops for children. The month-long even gained international attention in early 2018 when several camel owners were disqualified for botoxing their animals.

Near Taif, the Souk Okaz Festival recreates an ancient Arabian market from pre-Islamic times. On her blog, Alho wrote: ‘The Souk Okaz Festival was revived in 2006 by Prince Khalid al-Faisal, Emir of Makkah, and it’s held every year in accordance to the Hijri calendar. The event goes on for two weeks and many tour companies from around the kingdom arrange tours there … The ancient Souk Okaz was active in 542-726 CE, and it used to be the largest and most important event of its kind back then. Historically, it was more than a marketplace; the souk served as a meeting place for tribal leaders and for people interested in poetry and literature.’

Saudi Arabia- Saudi concert Jeddah
Saudi women attend a concert by Egyptian singer Tamer Hosny in Jeddah on March 30, 2018. Thousands of fans were taken by surprise when tickets for Hosny’s first-ever Saudi concert came with the edict that dancing was “strictly prohibited”. Photo AFP

Travel websites also recommend Milad al-Nabi, which celebrates the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, Eid al-Adha, held roughly 70 days after Ramadan to mark the moment when Ibrahim was willing to sacrifice his son Ismael for Allah, and other religious festivals.

This year is the first that non-Saudis can visit the country on a tourist visa. At the end of February, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told the Associated Press, “[Saudi Arabia] is open for people that are doing business, for people working in Saudi Arabia, investing in Saudi Arabia, and people who are visiting for special purposes. And now it will be open for tourism again on a selected basis.” This selection refers to women visitors. Female solo travelers over 25 years old can get a 30-day visa while those under 25 need to be accompanied by a family member.

The government aims to welcome 30 million visitors by 2030, compared to 18 million in 2016. According to the Tourism Information and Research Center website, tourist numbers have been rising over the past year. More than 28 per cent of tourists are now Saudi and the sector supports over 999,000 jobs. It is hoped that Increasing the number of festivals will bring the kingdom closer to the goals set out in Vision 2030.

However, there are concerns that the kingdom may be spreading itself too thinly. As Alho noted: “The offering is getting very versatile and the General Entertainment Authority is organizing a vast selection of different events catering to different target audiences.” The head of the authority, Ahmed al-Khatib, was fired after a conservative backlash against a Russian circus act in which female performers wore tight clothing and an American wrestling event where footage of scantily clad female wrestlers was shown on big screens.

On a more positive note, recent moves like the decision to lift the 35-year ban on movie theatres and measures to allow concerts and other public events suggest a real desire to modernize Saudi society.

“The future of entertainment [in Saudi Arabia] looks very promising,” Alho said.

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