CNN’s Destination explores Saudi Arabia’s growing tourism industry

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In a half hour Destination show, CNN visits Saudi Arabia to see a country full of contrasts and change that is preserving the past while embracing a new modern era as tourism increases.

Along the Tuwaiq mountain range is Jebel Fihrayn, known as the Edge of the World. The influx of tourists to the area have transformed what was a hobby for local tour guide Faisal Almshari into a full-time business. “We started the company in 2018. We start with 5-10 people, only on a Friday, and after a few weeks the numbers start to go up to 50 people. And now we are operating every day trips for more than 200 people per week from everywhere in the world,” he explains.

Almshari says that the growing tourism industry has changed his life, “I started just to show my friends, not for business. But now it has changed a lot of things in my life.” He continues, “The government is investing a lot in tourism, and I think there is a good future for the tourism here.”

Born and raised in Jeddah, award-winning filmmaker Ayman Idriss Tamano takes CNN on a tour of the oldest part of the city Al-Balad. “Al Balad has always been home for a lot of artists. This is where you’re gonna find your own tribe. This is where you’re gonna find a place where you can thrive and hone the necessary skills that you need to master your craft. This place is a home for you,” he says.

Tamano describes how this historical affinity for the arts is shaping the area’s future, “Balad has always been a place where we were comfortable with expressing our creativity. And it’s very nice to see that it’s actually growing into something more official and regulated now. The Red Sea Film Festival, for instance, was first held in Al-Balad. And you have the MDLBEAST, that was also held in Al-Balad.”

Since 2019, when festivals were first licenced in Saudi Arabia, MDLBEAST has grown to attract more than a million people to its events. Tamano speaks about its future and its impact on the region, “We no longer feel like we draw that much inspiration from references from Western music. There’s a lot of focus on what we have internally. So it’s like we just realised we have culture. In 10 years what would be cool is to have like a new sound to what Saudi music actually is. It’s like now there’s Western music, but now there’s like our music and it competes at the same level. That for me is the dream.”

Off the coast of Jeddah is the Red Sea. Marine biologist and scuba instructor Tom Slough moved back to Saudi Arabia two years ago to help develop diving tourism in the country. He speaks about his role, “This a place that has not really had tourism. People haven’t had the chance to visit here, the Red Sea. People have visited places like Egypt. So why not come to somewhere that has the same to offer, if not better, because of the lack of previous tourism.”

Slough talks about why the Red Sea is especially good for diving, “There’s some incredible areas of healthy coral, a real diverse array of marine life from fish species, crustaceans, dolphins, whales, sharks. I found a bigger diversity here than I have most places in the world that I’ve been diving.”

Slough believes that setting up a new diving industry means that they can implement marine conservation and sustainability from the start. He explains, “We can start it with an understanding of what’s gone wrong in other countries now where there’s often a lot of tourists and a lot of diving tourism, you end up ruining reefs. So, we can start with eco sustainable tourism and start it the right way. Education is key for the future. So, we are really trying to educate people into understanding how important our ocean system is. We want young Saudis to come in. We train them up, educate them, get their love for the ocean out there.”