MITZPE RAMON, Israel: Israel has already been credited with making the desert bloom. Now it hopes to make it boom — with tourists.
Seeking to bolster tourism to its vast and largely undeveloped Negev desert region, Israel is promoting luxury camping trips, Bedouin hospitality and challenging outdoor activities like dune surfing.
In addition, a new international airport is rising from the desert floor 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the Israeli Red Sea resort of Eilat and the neighboring Jordanian port of Aqaba.
Tourism in Israel is big business, bringing in $5.8 billion in 2017.
Arrivals to the country of about eight million citizens hit a record 3.6 million last year, the Israeli tourism ministry said.
The United States, Russia, France, Germany and Britain accounted for most of the visitors.
The ministry says that it now seeks to grow the Negev’s share of total Israeli tourist revenue from the present five percent to 20 percent within two to three years.
It also aims to increase the number of Negev hotel rooms from 2,000 to about 5,000 within six to seven years.
Israel is marketing the desert as a unique destination on Europe’s doorstep.
“When it’s very cold in Europe, let’s say in December, January and February, we have very mild temperatures in the Negev,” the tourism ministry’s Uri Sharon told journalists on a tour of the sparsely populated region.
Activities include hiking, biking, rock climbing, abseiling and dune surfing — akin to snowboarding on sand.
The Negev is also home to a geological marvel: the Ramon Crater, the world’s largest erosion crater.
Salaam El Wadj has opened up the encampment where he lives with his wife, children and goats to visitors, who can stay in one of the tents and listen to his stories of Bedouin life.
“I was born here in the Negev hills,” he tells his visitors over strong, sweet tea.
Wadj relates how the arrival a century ago of British and French administrators and, in 1948, officials of the new state of Israel, brought a drive for modernization that disrupted and threatened the nomadic Bedouin way of life.
Hosting tourists, he said, enables him to preserve his heritage.
“They don’t want to just sleep in a Bedouin camp but also to learn,” he said.
Hikers can walk along part of the Negev Highland Trail, covering about 12 km a day between Bedouin camps while their luggage is transported by vehicle.
Near Wadj’s site, Hannah and Eyal Izrael have planted vineyards on terraces where Nabatean farmers cultivated vines 2,000 years ago.
Their Carmey Avdat winery produces just 5,000 bottles a year of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and other wines.
Eyal supplements his income by offering tourist accommodation in cabins and group tours to surrounding sites of interest rather than industrializing his winemaking.
Visitors can help run the production line and bottle, cork and label their choice of wine personally.
“All the time there are tourists from all over the world coming to the Israeli desert to explore, trek, taste our wine, go to other farms to taste goat cheese,” he said.
“The Negev is a very safe and accessible desert and it’s warm here.”
The vines grow in a natural basin, watered in winter by runoff from the surrounding hills and augmented with a modern irrigation system fed by desalinated sea water piped from the Mediterranean coast.
Not far from Carmey Avdat is the town of Mitzpe Ramon, which stands at the edge of the Ramon Crater.
There, travelers after tranquility with a luxurious twist can go “glamping” — glamor camping — in luxury tents with hot showers and a personal chef.
When inky night falls over the crater’s floor, there is the option of gazing through high-powered telescopes at the stars shining brightly in the unpolluted sky.
The Negev’s heart is only about a two-hour drive from Israel’s main international airport near Tel Aviv.
The new Ramon Airport will bring jumbo jets from around the globe to the desert itself.
Its website says that it will be able to initially handle up to two million passengers annually, but will be able to expand to a capacity of 4.2 million by 2030.
Low-cost and charter airlines currently flying to Ovda airport, about 60 km away from Eilat, will move to Ramon, it says.
They include Ryanair, Wizz Air, easyJet, SAS, Finnair and Ural Airlines.
Construction began in May 2013.
Israeli media say that the airport is expected to start operations this autumn, in time for the November-May winter tourist season, but the Israel Airports Authority (IAA) is making no official forecasts.
The IAA says the original specifications for the project were revised in light of lessons learned during the 2014 Gaza war.
After a rocket fired by Hamas militants in Gaza hit near the perimeter of Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport, international carriers suspended flights.
IAA spokesman Ofer Lefler said that the revised plans for the Ramon airport will allow it to serve as a backup in addition to boosting tourism.
“In an emergency, not only will Israel’s entire passenger air fleet be able to land and park there, but also additional aircraft,” he said.
Seeking tourists, Israel promotes a different sun and sand
Seeking tourists, Israel promotes a different sun and sand
MITZPE RAMON, Israel: Israel has already been credited with making the desert bloom. Now it hopes to make it boom — with tourists.
Escape to Okinawa, Japan’s historic island paradise
- The prefecture offers outstanding scenery, plenty of history and culture, and a laidback vibe
OKINAWA: Located at the intersection of trade routes that linked Japan, China, south-east Asia and the tiny islands that dot the Pacific Ocean, the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa has adopted flavors from all its neighbors, but still managed to remain true to its cultural and historic roots.
Those influences can be tasted in the area’s cuisine and witnessed in its unique architectural styles, festivals and attitudes that are more laidback Pacific than formal Japanese. And local people — descendants of the Ryukyuan Kingdom that was absorbed into Japan in 1872 — still take a fierce pride in being distinct.
Now Japan’s most southerly prefecture, Okinawa consists of more than 150 islands, dotted between southern Kyushu to a point just over the horizon from Taiwan. Some of the more remote islands are uninhabited while others have just a handful of homes in communities that have changed little in generations. Bullocks pull wooden carts across the beach flats and the sound of three-string “shamisen” being plucked floats on the warm evening air.
The lifestyles of those outer islands is quite a contrast to Naha, the regional capital — less than two hours’ flying time from Tokyo and connections to the Middle East.
Kokusaidori runs for more than 2 km through the heart of the city and, while touristy, is still the best place to get your first taste of Okinawa. Cafes, bars, boutiques and gaudy stores selling trinkets are cheek-by-jowl.
Okinawan cuisine is a blend of many influences, with fish abundant in the surrounding waters, pork imported from China when the Ryukyus were still independent and fruits and spices from south-east Asia. For non-Muslims, no visit would be complete without sampling goya champuru, the islands’ signature dish that typically combines pork, tofu, eggs and goya, a green gourd with its own distinctive, bitter taste. Pork belly (rafute), simmered in soy sauce before being glazed with brown sugar, is another favorite, along with the local take on soba noodles.
Just off Kokusaidori is the covered market where many of the restaurants source their ingredients every day. In a warren of narrow alleyways, stalls are also piled high with every conceivable household utensil, local fabrics and electronic gadgets that you never knew you needed.
Naha is overlooked from the east by Shuri Castle. The main elements of the UNESCO World Heritage site were razed to the ground by fire in 2019, but work is underway to rebuild the iconic red structure and it is expected to once again be fully open to visitors by 2026.
Despite the damage, the castle is still worth visiting. The fortified buildings on the site dating back to the 12th century CE, when Shuri was the center of Ryukyuan politics, diplomacy and culture. An earlier version of the castle was designated a national treasure in 1925, but was destroyed in the fierce fighting that took place in Okinawa in the closing stages of World War II.
Its outer fortifications, gateways and courtyards escaped damage in the most recent fire, and their gracefully curving walls of limestone are markedly different from traditional Japanese castles. A series of decorated gateways lead deeper into the complex, their designs reflecting Chinese as well as Japanese and Ryukyuan influences.
Okinawa’s islands are dotted with fortresses that were the power bases of local warlords, with Zakimi Castle another well-preserved example dating from the early 1400s. On the west coast of the main island, it dominates a hill overlooking the town of Yomitan and its thick walls complement the curves of the coastline below.
The islands’ recent history is overshadowed by the brutal battles that took place here in 1945. The Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum opened in 1975 to give a fuller sense of the human tragedy. Built atop sea cliffs in the far south of the prefecture, on the site of the Imperial Japanese Army’s last stand, the museum’s gardens have rings of tall black stones bearing the names of each of the more than 250,000 men, women and children who died in the fighting here, regardless of nationality. A short walk away, along an avenue lined with memorials to the dead of each of Japan’s prefectures, is the tiny cave where the commanding officer of the defeated defenders committed suicide rather than surrender.
Peace has once more returned to Okinawa and for anyone in search of true tranquility, consider a trip to Iriomote, the second-largest of the islands. It is famous for its unspoiled natural environment and a unique species of wild cat.
Its sparse coastal communities are linked by a single road and the island’s interior is largely untouched — and protected as a national park. Visitors can explore by sea kayak, while a 20-km trail leads through the jungles of the interior and the mangrove swamps of the coast, all providing an enviable escape from the pace of modern city life.
Saudi camping: exploring the untamed beauty surrounding Riyadh
- Adventurers and nature lovers should not miss these spots during winter
RIYADH: Camping in Saudi Arabia provides an opportunity to immerse oneself in the beauty of the vast wilderness. The desert, with its mesmerizing dunes stretching as far as the eye can see, offers a serene setting for those seeking solace away from the bustle of city life.
Camping offers an unforgettable experience for adventurers and nature enthusiasts. With the Kingdom’s diverse landscapes and warm hospitality, the country welcomes visitors to connect with nature and forge lasting memories in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula.
From late October to early February, the rainy season in Riyadh announces with it winter and the start of the camping season.
During this time of the year, people flock to the desert, spending time with family, friends and loved ones, enjoying the beautiful warm weather away from city life and hectic schedules.
For those interested in camping, it is recommended to start with a visit to Reef Shaqra.
Reef Shaqra is one of the local stores providing camping supplies — from food to spices to grilling tools, all organized perfectly and ready to be used.
Al-Rimaya is another excellent store to visit prior to a camping trip. The store, opened 25 years ago, specializes in camping and outdoor equipment such as tents, portable fire pits and camping fridges.
They also offer a service where they prepare the vehicle with all the necessary equipment for enthusiasts who spend days in the desert.
“Recently, we have been seeing women customers more than men, not only buying camping equipment but also requesting car preparations,” said Sultan Abdulaziz, one of the store workers.
“There are many accessories we offer, like attaching tents to the car. The tent will be set perfectly to your car where you won’t need to prepare it by yourself every time you go on a trip.”
Rawdat Khuraim is 110 km from the capital and one of the well-known camping sites in the region.
Recently, we have been seeing women customers more than men, not only buying camping equipment but also requesting car preparations.
Sultan Abdulaziz, Al-Rimaya staff
The beautiful landscape has been transformed into a reserve to preserve its innate beauty. The area is not completely a desert but more of a green landscape due to the rains during the season.
Another popular destination close to the city is King Salman Park, 40 km to the northeast. It is a family picnic area, with facilities provided to create a safe and comfortable camping experience.
For those who have more of an adventurous spirit and love to spend a camping trip in complete isolation, the locations can be endless. Since the country, generally speaking, is known for being mostly desert, visitors can find camping spots almost everywhere.
There is nothing better than gathering around the campfire for a delicious meal. Dishes include mandi, kabssa and jamriyah, with kunafah among the recently trending meals.
With fine food and the allure of the stars in a dark sky, the music of oud sets the perfect atmosphere. Among activities young people enjoy are oud playing around the fire. Some musicians even offer services for music sessions during the camping trip.
As the popularity of camping in Saudi Arabia continues to grow, tour operators, officials and local communities are actively promoting responsible and sustainable practices.
Ancient Kingdoms Festival returns to AlUla
- The two-week event celebrates local history and heritage through a diverse range of activities by AlUla Moments
JEDDAH: The Ancient Kingdoms Festival has returned to AlUla in celebration of the region’s history and heritage.
Organized by AlUla Moments, the two-week festival is being held until Dec. 2 and offers a series of exciting experiences that transport visitors to the heart of AlUla's captivating past.
The festival’s program includes cultural celebrations, evening tours, historic culinary experiences, and trips to archaeological and historical sites.
This year’s festivities mark the 15th anniversary of Hegra’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Nabataean city sprawls over 52 hectares, standing as a testament to Saudi Arabia’s rich history. Initially untouched for over 2,000 years, the city has revealed its treasures, allowing archaeologists and experts to delve into its ancient mysteries.
Ibn Battuta, the legendary Arab explorer, visited Hegra in the 14th century, noting in his memoirs that its tombs were also passed by travelers, traders, and pilgrims en route to Makkah over the centuries.
Another famous explorer who made the journey was Charles Montagu Doughty. Regarded to this day as one of the greatest of all Western travelers in Arabia, Doughty’s visit to Hegra was referenced in his 1888 book “Travels in Arabia Deserta.”
However, Hegra is now open to the world as one of Saudi Arabia’s iconic landmarks, welcoming tourists from all walks of life as they explore a distinctive, untouched part of the Kingdom.
“The stories and secrets within Hegra have withstood … time and as we uncover them in the present, they only enforce that the city remains as significant as ever,” Phillip Jones, chief tourism officer at the Royal Commission for AlUla, told Arab News.
“Modern-day Saudi Arabia and its people are just as pioneering, innovative, and transactional with communities in near and distant lands as the ancient Nabataean and Roman civilizations that inhabited Hegra, whose legacies endure through our culture and heritage. This year’s Ancient Kingdoms Festival casts a unique spotlight on this legacy through a series of world-class activations,” Jones explained.
Its legacy interweaves the stories of the Nabataeans with those of the Dadanites and Lihyanites, all of whom left indelible marks within this historic locale — marks illustrating timeless cultural exchanges in architecture, decoration, language use, and the caravan trade.
Visitors to the festival can uncover Hegra’s secrets through new and exciting points of access, allowing them to witness history through innovative, thoughtfully designed experiences.
“Hegra After Dark” is a history-inspired immersive experience in the shadow of some of the most spectacular tombs located at the UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors start their journey on a Nabataean-inspired horse-drawn carriage to discover the “Secret Garden of Khuraymat,” a curatorially imagined sensorium where they can explore the history and culture of incense use across the ancient world. Meanwhile, “Theatre of Life” is an experience blending historic storytelling with entertainment.
The stories and secrets within Hegra have withstood ... time and as we uncover them in the present, they only enforce that the city remains as significant as ever.
Phillip Jones, Royal Commission for AlUla chief tourism officer
Jones added: “These activations promise to take visitors on the journey through time and present Hegra to the world in a way that hasn’t been experienced before.”
The “Evening of Stone” is inspired by the province’s history and takes visitors on a journey to its most important graveyards. It also features the “Life in Al-Hijr Exhibition” showcasing 15 archaeological discoveries in the region, in addition to the wildlife and nature life in the area.
During the opening weekend, the festival kicked off on Nov. 16 with the “Journey Through Time Parade,” illuminating the stories, legends, and legacies of the ancient incense road and the life and memories of AlUla.
Another experience is “Ikmah After Dark,”celebrating Jabal Ikmah’s recent recognition on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, where visitors encounter the spirit of this ancient place in an experience that blends Arabian hospitality and refreshments, hands-on carving activities, and a spectacular show — all inspired by the inscriptions left behind by historic civilizations.
Other activations launched are the “King Nabonidus Parade,” where visitors can celebrate all things Tayma in a dramatic show starring the last king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire.
Visitors will witness the intertwining of the past with the present while exploring the legendary landscapes and the linking of AlUla, Khaybar, and Tayma — three interconnected ancient oases of Northwest Arabia.
Khaybar is where geological wonders and natural treasures take center-stage. Engaging activations like “Khaybar Camp” invite visitors to explore traditional food, handicrafts, and family-oriented heritage performances. The “Oasis Soundscape” celebration combines music, nature, and landscape in a unique setting, while Takya Restaurant offers an opportunity to savor traditional Saudi Arabian dishes with scenic views of Khaybar forts and oasis.
Tayma, another significant locale, invites visitors to delve into history-inspired experiences, unveiling the richness and complexity of the kings, queens, and ancient communities that once flourished in the region.
Among these experiences, “Tayma Camp” provides a delightful blend of food, authentic handicrafts, cultural performances, camel riding, and falconry, whereas “Tayma Live” presents an enthralling re-enactment show, narrating the story of the “Land of the Kings” through music and performing arts.
The Ancient Kingdoms Festival introduces several new Oases Discovery activations. The “Memory Sanctuary,” crafted in collaboration with AlUla’s residents, pays homage to the oasis through a multisensory experience. Guests can create nostalgic desserts, enjoy liquid nitrogen slushies, and savor 3D-printed wafers in an experiential dessert laboratory.
Furthermore, two extraordinary picnic experiences, “Ancestral Hampers” and “Life and Memory Chest,” draw inspiration from memories of the harvest season in the Oasis. Visitors can opt for the portable, family-friendly picnic hampers to enjoy under the shade of trees or indulge in an elevated gastronomic feast served in a premium, cozy spot.
A series of cultural and artistic workshops will be held under the theme “Programs for Future Ancients.” Designed for young minds and their families, these activities were created through extensive consultation with archaeologists by the Academy of Ancient Inscriptions.
For more information, visit experiencealula.com.
Egypt’s ancient city of Madi gives visitors a glimpse into the past
- Items and buildings on display narrate the history and civilization of past eras, distinguished by their unique architectural details
CAIRO: The archaeological city of Madi in Egypt, which contains the largest Middle Kingdom temple ever found, is giving visitors a glimpse into the past.
Located in Fayoum Governorate, about 100 km from Cairo, Madi is home to an array of ancient sites.
Items and buildings on display narrate the history and civilization of past eras, distinguished by their unique architectural details.
Madi has attracted high interest from multinational foreign delegations and visitors interested in Ancient Egypt.
It also boasts the longest archaeological road from Ancient Egypt and contains distinctive artifacts, such as sphynx statues.
Dr. Ahmed Refaat, a professor of archaeology, said that the ancient city of Medinet Madi is one of the most significant archaeological sites in Fayoum.
It has put Fayoum on the map of governorates with important antiquities visited by researchers and tourists from around the world.
Refaat added that Rams Road — designed during the reign of King Amenemhat III in the Twelfth Dynasty and completed by his son, Amenemhat IV — is located within the city.
Dr. Nermin Atef, director of the Department of Archaeological Awareness in the Fayoum Antiquities Area, said that a mission from the University of Milan discovered the Madi temple in 1937.
She said the religious site comprises a single pillar supporting a roof with two columns and postal capitals, each representing a mail bundle.
The front of the building was decorated with an Egyptian cornice.
The entrance leads to a hall that runs perpendicular to the main entrance. The hall has three compartments, with the largest being in the middle. Inside the middle compartment, there is a one-piece statue of Renenutet, the goddess of the harvest.
Nermin added: “It is evident from the scenes and texts in this temple that some of them correspond to the stages of the temple’s founding rituals, such as the rope-pulling ritual.
“Some suggest that the first hall was called the Hall of Transfiguration, while the transverse hall was named the Hall of Offerings, featuring depictions of sacrifices made to the temple deities.”
The Italian mission uncovered the Way of the Rams, featuring lion statues, altars for sacrifices, several shrines and paintings.
The Rams’ Way is adorned with plaques honoring its creator, his wife and children. The shrine was recently opened to visitors.
Dooma in AlUla — crafting a connection to the Earth
- Heritage-driven sustainability activities tap into ancient wisdom
ALULA: In the heart of AlUla’s Oasis, Daimumah — a name derived from the Arabic word for sustainability — is the site of an attraction for visitors looking for an experience that combines local heritage, art and nature.
Dooma, a subsidiary of Noma Hub that crafts “inclusive sustainability experiences,” offers the chance to participate in restoration work in the belief that “the best kind of travel is travel with a purpose.”
The word “dooma” is derived from the Nabatean language and refers to anyone who works with mud. Yahya Allawati, the cofounder of Dooma, said during a recent visit to AlUla that the mission was deeply tied to preserving the region’s deep-rooted and rich heritage.
Dooma’s immersive experiences provide visitors with a hands-on approach to learning about the mud houses and building techniques of AlUla, focusing on the raw materials, their origins, and fermentation processing techniques.
Visitors not only learn about these processes but also actively participate in making mud bricks and renovating heritage sites. On arrival, visitors are given aprons and straw hats to prepapre for a mud-full experience.
Allawati stressed the dual benefit of this heritage restoration: “The restoration not only allows preserving the stories and values of the diverse societies that once thrived in AlUla, but it also allows us to tap into their timeless wisdom and intellect that led to their prosperity.”
One of the core attractions at Dooma is the opportunity to explore the ancient mud house building process, including making mud bricks, which differs significantly from the modern approach of using cement and blocks.
The mud used in this experience is made from pure AlUla oasis mud, mixed with water and straw by participants, offering an authentic connection to heritage. The process involves mud-mixing, texture assessment, brick-making using a wooden mold, then drying the fresh bricks in sunlight for two weeks.
Heritage is more than tangible materials that we can see or touch — it represents the ideas and sentiments that a people embodied.
Yahya Allawati, Dooma cofounder
“The mud used for heritage sites requires a minimum of 14 days of fermentation,” Allawati said. “In the visitor’s experience, the mud is not fermented to allow for hands-on mixing and a tangible connection to the Earth’s materials, making it unsuitable for heritage sites.”
The experiences at Dooma extend beyond the physical processes of heritage restoration; they delve into the core cultural values of communities that lived in simplicity and security, highlighting the worth of social amity and the willingness to help and be helped.
As Allawati aptly put it: “Heritage is more than tangible materials that we can see or touch — it represents the ideas and sentiments that a people embodied.”
As the immersive mud experience comes to a close, visitors are invited to take part in the ultimate indulgence — a soothing mud bath pool where they can play and relax.
Another experience offered by Dooma is “Reviving Nature,” an innovative project that invites visitors to tackle palm frond waste by contributing repurposed frond petals to the dome sculpture called “Tanafaas,” meaning “breathing” in Arabic. It is a living artwork that allows air and light to pass through its petals, creating a stunning visual and sensory experience.
Visitors are invited to participate in weaving sessions with local experts, learning how to work with palm fronds to create boards that will form the sustainable dome placed within Daimumah. The dome’s exterior has 700 petals, expertly shaped to resemble the elegant trunks of palm trees.
Made using recycled palm fronds, each panel is adorned with personal stories written by participants. The exterior of the half-dome structure is crafted using locally sourced palm fronds from AlUla’s palm trees. Inside, the seating is made of wood, while the natural dirt floor adds a grounding element, allowing visitors to connect with the earth beneath their feet and feel a sense of belonging.
Najla Bokhari, one of the participants, said: “The experience helped me to explore more about the significance of how sustainability promotes environmental awareness and fosters a connection to nature.”
Allawati added: “Tanafaas is a testament to sustainability and the power of green buildings. It conveys a profound message about the importance of environmental consciousness and the creative use of recycled materials sourced locally.”
Both Dooma experiences are available to visitors until the end of November.