Asir ‘could be hotspot for global tourism,’ say travel bloggers

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YouTuber and blogger Joshua Van Alstine. (Photo supplied by: Laura Alho)
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Travel blogger Paris Verra.YouTuber and blogger Joshua Van Alstine. (Photo supplied by: Laura Alho)
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YouTuber and blogger Joshua Van Alstine. YouTuber and blogger Joshua Van Alstine. (Photo supplied by: Laura Alho)
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Instagram and travel blogger Paris Verra.
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Paragliding is among the attractions for thrillseekers in addition to bungee jumping, ropes course, slingshot and paintballing. (Photo courtesy: @AlsoudahSeason)
Updated 04 September 2019

Asir ‘could be hotspot for global tourism,’ say travel bloggers

  • Flower Men Festival a hit with visitors
  • Season ends Aug. 31

AL-SOUDAH: Asir province has the potential to become a hotspot for international tourism, according to bloggers who were impressed by the events and activities on offer at Al-Soudah Season. Joshua Van Alstine, who shot to fame in Saudi Arabia with his YouTube videos, said the public and private sector were taking advantage of the area’s potential and would develop it to accommodate demand.
 Van Alstine and his wife, who hails from the southwestern city of Tanomah in Asir, were driving to Abha from Riyadh and were invited to explore Al-Soudah Season.
“I loved it, I am so glad I accepted the invitation,” he told Arab News. “The best part of visiting Al-Soudah was trying out the bungee jumping.”
He also met his wife’s relatives. “We had dinner with them, they came to visit us in Al-Soudah and I gave them a tour and they really liked it. They could not believe this was happening in the region and I could not either. This is something so special, even as an American and we have had these events for years back home, this to me is something incredibly special.”
Al-Soudah has other attractions for thrillseekers in addition to bungee jumping. There is a ropes course, a slingshot, paintballing and paragliding.
Slightly more leisurely activities include trekking, cycling, enjoying performances of a local dance, and learning more about the distinctive traditions of the region’s Flower Men, a tribal group famous throughout the Kingdom for their floral crowns who live high up in the mountains.

I loved it, I am glad I accepted the invitation. The best part of visiting Al-Soudah was trying out the bungee jumping.

Joshua Van Alstine, YouTuber and blogger

“They did a great job,” said Van Alstine. “I am sure they had a lot of challenges moving up and down the mountain area into that valley. There are not that many places where you can walk into a town and see people singing, dancing and that is what happened when we visited. We walked into this old school village and people were laughing, dancing and the smell of food ... it was kind of like a barbeque.”
Travel blogger Paris Verra, who also visited Al-Soudah, said the region’s people were hospitable and welcoming. “The place is unreal, the beauty is just incredible,” she told Arab News. “Coming here I feel safe and there are many misconceptions of coming to Saudi Arabia. If people would open up there are so many great things about this country in general, especially in this region.”
Verra experienced four seasons in one hour. “I mean, it was like eating lunch in the clouds. Then there was rain, then there was thunder, and then clear blue sky ... and the Flower Men festival is on a whole different level.”
Al-Soudah Season runs until the end of the month and its programs are held across seven locations. The main area, called The Hub, is suitable for families. There is also the Kids Zone, where the Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz Foundation is holding educational workshops at the House of Qatt.
It is one of 11 festivals being held across the Kingdom to promote the country as a global tourist destination.
It also seeks to contribute to achieving goals within the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan, which aims to improve the quality of life, raise living standards, and create career and investment opportunities in Saudi Arabia.


The journey begins: One million Muslims begin first rituals of Hajj 2022

Updated 07 July 2022

The journey begins: One million Muslims begin first rituals of Hajj 2022

  • Kingdom launches massive operation to protect pilgrims’ health and safety
  • On Thursday, the pilgrims will move to a vast tented city at Mina

MAKKAH: A million pilgrims began the spiritual journey of a lifetime as the first rituals of the annual Hajj began.

Hundreds of thousands of worshippers circled Islam’s holiest site, the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Makkah. Many held umbrellas to block the sun as the temperature climbed to 42C.

On Thursday, the pilgrims will move to a vast tented city at Mina, about 5 kilometers from the Grand Mosque, ahead of the main rite at Mount Arafat, where the Prophet Muhammad delivered his final sermon.

Saudi authorities have mounted a massive operation to ensure the health and safety of pilgrims. The Saudi Health Ministry has prepared 23 hospitals and 147 health centres in Makkah and Madinah, the second-holiest city in Islam, to accommodate pilgrims.

Four hospitals and 26 health centers are also ready to treat pilgrims in Mina. There are more than 1,000 beds for patients requiring intensive care and more than 200 specifically for heatstroke patients, and more than 25,000 health workers are ready to respond to cases as they arise.

 “It’s all going well so far. I have moved around a lot and saw rules are being respected,” said Faten Abdel Moneim, 65, a mother of four from Egypt.

Naima Mohsen, 42, also from Egypt, said: “Being here is the best thing that has ever happened to me. I can’t wait for the rest. My only problem is the weather. It’s just too hot.”

FASTFACTS

• The Hajj follows a route Prophet Muhammad walked nearly 1,400 years ago and is believed to trace the footsteps of the prophets Ibrahim and Ismail.

• The Qur’an says that all Islam’s followers who are physically and financially able should make the pilgrimage once in their lifetime.

One million fully vaccinated Muslims, including 850,000 from abroad, are allowed at this year's Hajj, after two years of curtailed numbers because of coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

In 2019 about some 2.5 million Muslims from around the world took part in Hajj, but after that the pandemic forced a downsizing. Only 60,000 fully vaccinated residents of the Kingdom took part in 2021, up from a few thousand in 2020.

The restoration of the Hajj stirred bittersweet emotions for pilgrims Sutrisno and Sri Wahyuningsih, two teachers from Indonesia. Sri’s parents were supposed to take part in 2020, but their plans fell victim to the pandemic.

Sri’s father will now never make the journey after he died from a stroke in March, and her mother could not take part because she is over this year’s age limit of 65.

Nevertheless, Sutrisno, 54, and Sri, 51, are joyful at undertaking the Hajj in place of Sri’s parents. “It’s such a huge moral burden to me,” said Sri. “But my mother has given her blessings to me and I have to think that this is a journey I have to go through, everything is Allah’s decision, and I have to go on the Hajj.”


A brief guide to Hajj 2022: What the pilgrims will do over the next few days

Updated 07 July 2022

A brief guide to Hajj 2022: What the pilgrims will do over the next few days

  • This year one million pilgrims will perform the Hajj, one of the pillars of Islam obligatory for Muslims 
  • Saudi authorities have introduced many technological tools to aid pilgrims on their journey 

JEDDAH: Hajj is an annual religious pilgrimage to the holy city of Makkah undertaken yearly by millions of Muslims worldwide. It occurs in the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar, called Dhul Hijjah, between the eighth and 13th days of the month.

This year, Hajj takes place from approximately July 7 to 12. Taking part in the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime is a major obligation for all able-bodied Muslims of financial means, and between 2 million and 3 million people participate in the six-day ritual every year.

This year, 1 million pilgrims will flock to the holy city, 85 percent of them traveling from abroad for the first time following a two-year hiatus brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and attendant restrictions that prevented them from performing the ritual.

To ensure a smooth and safe journey for the pilgrims, the Saudi government has announced a series of entry conditions.

Pilgrims who wish to perform Hajj must be under 65 years old and fully vaccinated against COVID-19 with a booster. They must also present a negative PCR test taken 72 hours before departure for the Kingdom, and priority will go to those who have not performed the ritual before.

Following Prophet Muhammad, for 14 centuries, pilgrims began their journeys in a spiritual state of purity and devotion, also known as Ihram, which is the combined sacred act of Niyyah and Talbiyah necessary to perform Hajj. It is the innate intention to commit an act of worship, while Talbiyah is a special prayer said in supplication to attain Ihram.

After entering Makkah, pilgrims perform the welcome tawaf, circling the Kaaba seven times in a counterclockwise direction, starting at the Black Stone. They then head to the hills of Safa and Marwa, where they perform saee, which is the act of going back and forth between the two hills seven times.

Pilgrims circumambulating the Kaaba in Makkah are shown in this slow shutter speed and long exposure shot taken on July 6, 2022. (SPA)

Pilgrims then travel to Mina, an area of 20 square kilometers nearly five kilometers away from the Grand Mosque in Makkah, on the eighth day of Dhul Hijjah, also known as Yom Al-Tarwiyah, where they will stay and fill their day and evening with prayers and supplications, resting and consuming water ahead of their long, perilous journey.

On the second day of Hajj, pilgrims travel to Mt. Arafat, 20 kilometers away. The day is devoted to prayer and supplications as they observe duhr (noon) combined with asr (afternoon) prayers until sunset.

Day of Arafat is considered the most critical day for pilgrims and the millions not performing. It is the day that, “atones for the sins of the preceding and coming (Muslim) year” and is the best day for worship and supplication in the entire year.

After sunset, pilgrims descend from Mount Arafat and make their way to Muzdalifah for isha (night) prayers, collect pebbles no larger than the size of a fingertip ahead of the stoning ritual on the next day, and rest until midnight or dawn, when they will make the long journey back to Mina for the final steps of Hajj, the stoning ritual at Jamarat Al-Aqabah.

A million fully vaccinated Muslims, including 850,000 from abroad, are allowed at this year's Hajj  after two years of drastically curtailed numbers amid the pandemic. (AFP) 

On the third day of Hajj, Eid Al-Adha, pilgrims stone the Jamarat Al-Aqabah, or the big pillar, a place where the Prophet Ibrahim threw seven pebbles at the devil. After doing so, pilgrims change from their Ihram; sacrificial animals are slaughtered, and men cut or shave their heads while women cut a fingertip’s length of hair to commemorate the end of the Hajj pilgrimage.

For three days, known as Ayyam Al-Tashreeq, pilgrims stay in Mina and perform the stoning of the other two pillars, Al-Jamarah Al-Wusta and Al-Jamarah Al-Sughra.

With years of preparations ahead of the mass gathering, Saudi Arabia’s authorities undergo major planning every year to control the crowds, dividing a large number of pilgrims into groups and designating specific timings and routes to reach the bridge where the pillars are located.

Thousands of volunteers, military, law enforcement, and health personnel will be on the ground to assist pilgrims in what many believe is their sacred duty to serve the guests of God in the holiest and most sacred of journeys for a Muslim.

Saudi scouts have been assigned to assist the elderly and infirm pilgrims in moving around the holy sites in Makkah to perform the Hajj rituals. (SPA)

Utilizing the power of technologies, Saudi Hajj authorities are including the pilgrims’ smart ID again this year to render the transport of the “visitors of Allah” easier and to ensure their fast arrival to their locations and tents, whether in Mina or Arafat, with robots with touch screens available to explain rituals explained in 11 languages.

The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, in collaboration with the General Authority for Awqaf, launched 13 detailed e-manuals offering advice to pilgrims from around the world on a variety of topics in 14 languages, including French, Turkish, Persian, Urdu, Russian, and Amharic, which are compatible with all phone operating systems and can be reached by visiting guide.haj.gov.sa.

In a video shared on Twitter, the Ministry said: “These guiding e-manuals are interactive, and include Shariah and Islamic law, procedural, organizational and health directives which pilgrims will need during their Hajj journey.”

 


ThePlace: Maqam Ibrahim, the stone on which the Prophet stood

Updated 07 July 2022

ThePlace: Maqam Ibrahim, the stone on which the Prophet stood

MAKKAH: When worshippers circumambulate the Kaaba, they are often mesmerized by Maqam Ibrahim, the footprints of Prophet Ibrahim, kept in an enclosed glass case.

Maqam Ibrahim is a stone on which the prophet stood when the Kaaba was being built.

The stone is 50 centimeters long on each side and has two footprints in the middle in the form of two oval pits. 

(AN photo by Faisal Al-Fahad)

According to historians, when the Kaaba was being built, the walls became too high and Prophet Ibrahim stood on a stone that miraculously lifted him to build the walls and lowered him so he could collect stones from his son, Prophet Ismail.

Dr. Samir Ahmed Barqah, a researcher in the history of Makkah and the prophet’s biography, told Arab News:  “It is a wet stone holding the footprints of Prophet Ibrahim. His footprints remain visible to the present day. The maqam and the Black Stone are the oldest and most sacred landmarks in Islam, dating back 4,000 years. 

(AN photo by Faisal Al-Fahad)

It is located in front of the door of the Kaaba, around 10 to 11 meters east.”

Barqah said that historian Mohammed Tahir Al-Kurdi in 1367 stated the length of the footprints to be 22 centimeters long and 14 centimeters wide.

The stone is set in a gold and silver frame and kept in a glass case. During Omar Ibn Al-Khattab’s caliphate, Nahshal floods hit the city and dislodged the stone from its place. When the caliph came to Makkah, he fixed the stone in its current position. 

(AN photo by Faisal Al-Fahad)

It was previously inside a compartment to protect it from damage and theft. But the compartment was later removed, with the stone placed inside glass casing so that every worshipper could see it.

History researcher Saad Al-Sharif said that, throughout time, the stone had always remained near the Kaaba.

When Prophet Muhammad conquered Makkah, he and his companions decided to shift the stone from its original location near the Kaaba to its current location at a distance of more than 10 meters to facilitate circumambulation.

Decoder

Maqam Ibrahim

According to historians, when the Kaaba was being built, the walls became too high and Prophet Ibrahim stood on a stone that miraculously lifted him to build the walls and lowered him so he could collect stones from his son, Prophet Ismail.

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300 pilgrims with disabilities to perform Hajj

Updated 06 July 2022

300 pilgrims with disabilities to perform Hajj

MAKKAH: Three hundred people with disabilities have arrived at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah to perform Hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam.

This is part of a national initiative launched by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, for the second year in a row, that includes orphans from across Saudi Arabia. 

The program provides these pilgrims with facilities and services that allows them to perform their Hajj comfortably, and forms part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan. For those who need it, special housing and 24-hour escort services are provided.

The Kingdom is allowing up to 1 million people to perform Hajj this year, welcoming foreign pilgrims for the first time in two years, during which COVID-19 restrictions meant the annual pilgrimage was limited to residents of the country. 

The General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques confirmed its readiness to receive pilgrims, saying it had mobilized 10,000 workers. 

The presidency also said that the live broadcast of the Arafat Day sermon, one of the most important events in the Islamic calendar, has been expanded to include 14 languages as Saudi Arabia’s leadership seeks to convey a message of moderation and tolerance to the widest possible audience.

The sermon will be available in English, French, Malay, Urdu, Persian, Russian, Chinese, Bengali, Turkish, Hausa, Spanish, Hindi, Swahili and Tamil.


Who’s Who: Naif Sheshah, chief digital officer at KSA’s Communications and Information Technology Commission

Updated 07 July 2022

Who’s Who: Naif Sheshah, chief digital officer at KSA’s Communications and Information Technology Commission

In April, Naif Sheshah, the assistant deputy governor for planning and development and chief digital officer at Saudi Arabia’s Communications and Information Technology Commission, was named as one of 110 young global leaders by the World Economic Forum.

He joined the commission in November 2016 as general manager for strategic planning and development and acting GM of its postal and logistics services and was promoted to his current position in February 2021.

He has spearheaded the communications authority’s digital transformation strategy and helped in the launch of several industry reports including one into the advancement of the Kingdom’s internet and gaming performance.

He also played an instrumental role in launching IGNITE, a $1.1 billion program to transform Saudi Arabia into a leading digital entertainment and media production hub.

While managing the commission’s postal and logistics services, he restructured the sector and introduced a regulatory sandbox for delivery apps during the coronavirus pandemic.

He has also been the chief strategy officer at the Saudi Space Commission since May last year.

In 2012, he began his career as a business process analyst at Al-Elm Information Security Co. and in May of the same year joined Saudi Basic Industries Corp. as a senior business process controller.

From 2017 to 2019, he worked as an ambassador for the National Center for Performance Measurement. In addition, he has sat on the board of the National Information Technology Center since 2019 and has been a member of the International Data Corp. Middle East Advisory Council since 2021.

Sheshah gained a master’s degree in information technology and business process management from the Queensland University of Technology, in Australia, an associate degree in English from the University of Nebraska Omaha, and a management acceleration certificate from INSEAD in France.

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