Saudi tour guide’s labor of love showcasing Saudi Arabia's wonders to world

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Saudi Arabia has unlimited tourism potential thanks to its beaches, islands, plains, mountains, and deserts along with its distinctive and unique cultural heritage and civilization, says Al-Took. (Supplied)
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Saudi Arabia has unlimited tourism potential thanks to its beaches, islands, plains, mountains, and deserts along with its distinctive and unique cultural heritage and civilization, says Al-Took. (Supplied)
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Saudi Arabia has unlimited tourism potential thanks to its beaches, islands, plains, mountains, and deserts along with its distinctive and unique cultural heritage and civilization, says Al-Took. (Supplied)
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Saudi Arabia has unlimited tourism potential thanks to its beaches, islands, plains, mountains, and deserts along with its distinctive and unique cultural heritage and civilization, says Al-Took. (Supplied)
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Updated 18 September 2020

Saudi tour guide’s labor of love showcasing Saudi Arabia's wonders to world

  • Khaled Al-Took still learning after 2 decades at center of Saudi Arabia’s tourism development journey

MAKKAH: For Saudi tour guide Khaled Al-Took a career helping to showcase the Kingdom’s natural and cultural treasures to the world has been more than just a job — it has been a labor of love.

After more than two decades in the role, he has not only become a walking encyclopedia on Saudi people, customs, and traditions but has also witnessed a seismic change in the country’s approach to home and foreign tourism.

Opening up the Kingdom to tourists from around the world has been one of the cornerstones of the Vision 2030 reform plan to boost economic growth.

And Al-Took has been a key player in the nation’s journey of transformation.

Speaking to Arab News about his experiences in the sector, he said that the main mission of a tour guide was to execute the agreement signed between a travel operator and their customer.




Khaled Al-Took

“A tour guide has many responsibilities because they are effectively the ambassador of their country and region before the visiting tourists. They must represent that region and do their best to convey its true image,” he said.

He added that tour guides played a significant role in shaping the whole visitor experience and must possess an array of skills to meet with tourist expectations.

It was important for them to be familiar with program itineraries and timings and be able to pass on facts, figures, and stories about historic and cultural attractions.

“Another feature that characterizes the tour guide, is their ability to depict the personality of the guest and know when to speak and when to remain silent,” he said.

Al-Took pointed out that one of the aims of a good tour guide should be to help create lasting memories for visitors. It was their responsibility to do detailed background research on destinations and attractions in order to be able to pass on accurate information and informed comment.

“The best way to shed light on the beauty of any tourist attraction is to present it as it is with all its genuine facts, leaving the final decision to the recipient,” added Al-Took.




Saudi Arabia has unlimited tourism potential thanks to its beaches, islands, plains, mountains, and deserts along with its distinctive and unique cultural heritage and civilization, says Al-Took. (Supplied)

His introduction to the job came about by pure coincidence more than 20 years ago.

“I was passionate about internal travel and getting to know the cities and regions of my country. I was impressed by the cultural diversity and different environments we have.

“So, I completely devoted myself to this work, driven by my desire to explore its depths and intensively learn about the ancient civilizations and their relationship to the present, as well as the monuments and effects that stand as a valuable witness to the richness of our civilization and culture.

“Throughout my years in this work I have constantly been learning, and I am still learning and discovering. I am an insatiable learner. During every visit I make a point, whether alone or with tourists, to learn something new by unravelling new facts about something I perhaps had not noticed before or through remarks made by the tourists,” he said.

Al-Took noted that tour groups often spotted fine detail that a guide may have missed.

“God has created us in different tribes and races in order for us to meet each other, thus exchanging our respective knowledge. Through these trips, during which have I got to know many people from different cultures, many questions come to mind that I convey to my guests. They rejoice when we find a cultural or heritage meeting point between us.

“During one visit, I found out through speaking to a guest from New Zealand, that there was a meeting point between indigenous people and Gulf culture in general and our culture in Saudi Arabia in particular, which was greeting by the touching of noses,” he added.

Early in his career, the number of tourist guides in Saudi Arabia could be “counted on the fingers of one hand,” which meant tour operators employed them on a wide variety of trips including cruises, and day tours of Jeddah, Duba, Dubai, and Bahrain.

“I also led trips specialized in tracking the ancient trade routes from the south of the Arabian Peninsula and Dubai to the Kingdom’s border with Jordan in the north, as well as following some routes heading east and south to the Saudi border with Yemen and Oman deep in the Empty Quarter.”

Al-Took has also organized cultural trips in regions throughout the Kingdom, highlighting ancient civilizations, inscriptions, and spectacular rock structures.

“I had the opportunity to collaborate with celebrities as well as other people from all nationalities, and all of them agreed they had a positive impression about Saudi Arabia since it is a large country holding a lot of unknowns.

“Many people assert that the stereotype they know about Saudi Arabia quickly fades away on their first visit, and the deeper they go the more they discover that everything they had read in the press, old books, or reports from contemporary travelers was different from what they saw themselves.




Saudi Arabia has unlimited tourism potential thanks to its beaches, islands, plains, mountains, and deserts along with its distinctive and unique cultural heritage and civilization, says Al-Took. (Supplied)

“They often find that the stories they have been told are incorrect and quite opposite to their own experience on the ground. There is a cultural richness here and honest, welcoming people,” he added.

Many Saudis, he said, were not convinced or aware of the potential of tourism in their country but one of the positives to come out of the COVID-19  pandemic was the opportunity for people to get out and about locally and learn more about the Kingdom’s natural and cultural attractions.

“The Ministry of Tourism has played an instrumental role in highlighting these capabilities through a strong marketing campaign aimed at introducing Saudis and expats to these distinctive treasures,” he added.

“Some people who visited the Asir region during this period were shocked and reported that what they saw competed with the likes of Europe, where they used to spend their annual vacations.”

He pointed out that Saudi Arabia had unlimited tourism potential thanks to its beaches, islands, plains, mountains, and deserts along with its distinctive and unique cultural heritage and civilization.This fabric of different colors and tastes, he said, was a very marketable commodity.

“The culture, civilization, nature and, above all, a generous population unique in its humanity, heritage, and patriotism, all together form distinct and attractive elements put into perspective by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am confident that this emergence will be the beginning of a new destination, and strongly competitive, especially with the government’s orientation to make the tourism industry a source of national income in accordance with Vision 2030, which is not long away from being achieved.”


W20 ‘sherpa’ Salma Al-Rashid champions gender equality and female empowerment

Updated 20 October 2020

W20 ‘sherpa’ Salma Al-Rashid champions gender equality and female empowerment

  • Prominent Saudi social worker relishes the opportunity to bring together diverse voices from across the globe for a common goal
  • The first ever virtual Women 20 Summit will bring together experts and leaders from a variety of disciplines over Oct. 20-21

RIYADH: Salma Al-Rashid has represented Saudi Arabia at the Women 20 (W20) — the official G20 engagement group on women — since 2018, first in Argentina then last year in Japan. Now, as Riyadh prepares to host the 2020 summit in November, Al-Rashid is delighted to have been named this year’s “sherpa” tasked with undertaking preparatory work for the conference.

Since Oct. 2019, Al-Rashid has been the chief advocacy officer of the Alnahda Philanthropic Society for Women, a Saudi charity that champions female empowerment and participation. At the helm of the W20 Riyadh edition, Alnahda will help facilitate discussions among a network of delegates representing non-governmental women’s organizations, female entrepreneurs and think tanks from across the G20 member states.

The aim is to ensure gender considerations are placed firmly on the table and are included in the G20 Leaders’ Declaration as policies and commitments that foster gender equality and women’s economic empowerment.

“I take the task of head of delegation and sherpa very seriously,” Al-Rashid told Arab News in the run-up to the summit. “I have the responsibility to bring forward the voice of Saudi Arabian women in all their shapes, forms and experiences. I serve as the mechanism to project the voices of women of Saudi Arabia in this global forum.”

Salma Al-Rashid has represented Saudi Arabia at the Women 20 (W20) first in Argentina then last year in Japan. (Supplied)

Recalling her long association with Alnahda, Al-Rashid said she had always been passionate about social and development issues. “Throughout my career, I have firmly believed that by building a global and an inclusive culture, where all voices are heard, regardless of age, sex, race, religious beliefs and political affiliation, we can make the world more just and equitable for all,” she said.

Alnahda, which means “the awakening,” was founded in 1962 to help empower Saudi women economically and socially through targeted development projects.

As a sherpa, Al-Rashid is responsible for the operational management of this year’s W20, its advocacy and communications, and for providing overall support to the W20’s Saudi chair, Dr. Thoraya Obaid. She relishes the opportunity to bring together diverse voices from around the globe for a common goal.



“The W20 this year allowed us to create a bridge between global and local conversations that is meaningful, and at times challenging, with the different perspectives of various sectors of the community on what matters most to women and how we can ensure women’s economic empowerment,” Al-Rashid said.

“The W20 has provided us with an opportunity to contribute to the local advancement of Saudi women.”

Al-Rashid started out with Alnahda as a volunteer. She went on to found a volunteer service program and later shifted to managing academic guidance and career-development programs to give young girls from underprivileged backgrounds a leg up on the competition as well as access further education.

“After that, I co-managed a nationwide campaign to enhance civic education among Saudi men and women during the municipal elections of 2015, when women were allowed to run and vote. So that was an exciting point in my career,” she said.

“The W20 has provided us with an opportunity to contribute to the local advancement of Saudi women,” says Al-Rashid. (Supplied)

Al-Rashid’s interest in the development and social issues started at an early age thanks to her mother, who has been an Alnahda member for over 25 years.

“I've had the privilege and experience of listening to the realities and experiences of Saudi women,” she said. “So, I would sit with my mom and just listen to conversations with social workers, beneficiaries, and the leaders and employees of Alnahda.

“I grew up listening to the various experiences, struggles, challenges and obstacles that women face, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds. I think that’s most probably what sparked my passion.”

With such an impressive background in women’s advocacy work, Al-Rashid seemed like the obvious candidate for the sherpa role, appointed to it in December last year. She is excited to see all the months of planning and discussion come together for the upcoming summit.

“Jointly with our delegates across the G20, we formulate concrete, actionable policy recommendations to further advance gender equality within the G20 negotiations,” she said.

Al-Rashid: We did not ignore this pandemic that hit women the hardest. (Spplied)

“One thing we did this year as W20 Saudi Arabia was an in-house analysis, before January. We wanted to understand how effective the W20 has been in the past five years and how efforts have been reflected at the G20 level, through additionally consulting with international organizations and experts who we call our knowledge partners,” she said.

Based on this analysis, the delegates have settled on this year’s framework. “W20 delegates have agreed that we have three main areas of focus: Women’s financial inclusion, labor inclusion and digital inclusion. And every year a presidency introduces a fourth focus area. We wanted to continue the legacy of past presidencies, and build on their work.”

This year’s presidency proposal was to promote inclusive decision-making, a position jointly agreed by the summit’s 20 delegates. “We need to ensure that women are represented at every level of the decision-making process,” Al-Rashid said.

“If we look across the G20, we have only one female leader among the G20 leaders. We don’t see many women in leadership positions, but W20 goes beyond that. It’s not just women on boards and as CEOs. We recognize that the decision-making process is very complex and there are different stages. We need to ensure that at every stage there is representation of women and that representation is diverse.”

An ongoing challenge the W20 delegation wants to see the G20 address is the lack of women being hired to leadership positions.

“We only recently celebrated the appointment of the first woman CEO at Citigroup. And we know that Wall Street suffers from not having enough women. So, it is a challenge across the globe,” Al-Rashid said.

This is a challenge that Saudi Arabia has risen to meet in recent years, with a raft of new reforms designed to bolster women’s participation and empowerment.

Al-Rashid: We see a lot of reforms and advancement to push for women’s participation in the economic development of Saudi Arabia. (Supplied)

“We’re living in an extremely exciting time in Saudi Arabia,” Al-Rashid said. “We see a lot of reforms and advancement to push for women’s participation in the economic development of Saudi Arabia. One of the goals of Vision 2030 is to accelerate women’s representation in the labor market and in leadership positions.

“We’ve celebrated the appointment of the first Saudi ambassador to the US, Her Royal Highness Princess Reema bint Bandar, and we’ve celebrated a number of appointments of women in both the private and public sector.

“Are we there yet? Are we even close to where we hope to see ourselves? Not yet. It’s a very long journey, but we are on the right track.”

As a result of the global coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the G20 Summit and all engagement groups are being held remotely. Al-Rashid says the virus and its consequences have laid bare the economic vulnerabilities of women and the vital role of the W20.

“Despite the difficulties and challenges that we were faced with this year, we are privileged and honored to be able to respond to the question of what we can and have done this year,” she said.

“We did not stay quiet. We did not ignore this pandemic that hit women the hardest. We look at it as an opportunity to build back better.”

Al-Rashid sees an opportunity for world leaders to take concrete action in further advancing women’s economic participation. She puts it this way: “Only through empowering women, and through addressing the impact of COVID-19 on women, will we be able to further advance and sustainably recover from this pandemic.”

Twitter: @LujainBenGassem