Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ancient sites.... new markets........

The concept of cultural tourism is an old one – from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries many wealthy noblemen completed their education with a period of European travel known as the Grand Tour. The main destination was Italy, considered one of the birthplaces of classical civilization. These aristocratic gentlemen traveled to see ancient Roman monuments and wonders of nature like the volcanic eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, near Naples. If they were a little more adventurous, then they might venture to Greece, and as the 19th century wore on travelers went even further to North Africa, Turkey or the Levant. Some wrote poems or accounts of their journey, such as Byron or Keats, others drew sketches or painted what they saw, for example Frederick Lewis or Delacroix, and museum collections owe much to the intrepid early tourists who brought back souvenirs, notably Sir William Hamilton and Lord Elgin.
Nowadays ‘the world is our oyster’ and modern technology has made it easy for us to see the world and seek out new destinations. Independent travel is now easy – often it is no longer necessary to go to even far flung places as part of a group, and the advent of e-commerce means that even travel agents are becoming redundant: a flight or a hotel booking is just a click away. Cultural tourism is no longer something for the brave adventurer, but a choice for everyone who has the desire to learn a little about a place by visiting it as well as reading about it or seeing it through someone else’s eyes on television.
With cheap flights and the ease of booking on the in internet, the business of organized tour groups being led by experts is facing increasing competition from individuals doing their own thing. Anyone, it seems, armed with a tourist guide book (or even hiring a guide on the spot) and the confidence to travel independently can seek out all of the places that previously would only have been visited with as seasoned guide in tow. And of course there is the question of whether older markets have reach saturation point: the old destinations of Italy and Greece no longer seem exotic when we consider that we are all part of the same economic entity. I have been working in the field of cultural tourism for more than a decade now and I spend several weeks of the year as a guest lecturer taking groups of people to various destinations. I also occasionally find myself working as an advisor to travel companies on the subject. A great deal of my work is done in Greece, one of the oldest and most established markets in this area, and one of the most saturated. There are more companies than ever who give added value to trips to Greece, Italy, Egypt and beyond by including experts on them, whether they are archaeologists, ornithologists or another kind of specialist academic.
Including expert lecturers on a trip also means an increase in price. Expertise is expensive, but for some people having someone on hand to explain exactly what they are seeing is vital to their enjoyment of travel. The typical profile of people joining these tours is that of well-heeled professionals who tend to be in their fifties or retired. They often have been educated to tertiary level and in a led tour are seeking an engaging companion who can satisfy their need for information and discussion. For the lecturer, taking a group can be a pretty full-on experience: clients feel quite at liberty to ask you the date of the battle of such and such before your lips have even touched their breakfast coffee! But it is not only the services of your very own academic that is the attraction. Some tour operators offer other extras, such as themed itineraries, access to sites unavailable to the general public, or the services of a tour manager as well as the resident expert. The tour manager’s job is to make sure that everything goes smoothly, from check-in at the airport to collecting your bags at the end of the trip and all points in between. These hardy souls do all the tedious little chores that can be boring on holiday – buying tickets for attractions, making sure luggage is on the coach and that the right suitcase appears in your room, and providing an aspirin/safety pin/plastic bag/whatever just when you need one.
The world is ever changing, with new horizons appearing all the time as political and social changes in different countries open (or close!) the doors to tourists. Tourism is a vital source of income for many countries, and an unfortunate incident, whether by design or by accident, may completely change the climate for those wishing to visit the area. Egypt is one country that has suffered in this respect. Once visitor figures are lost it is a long climb back, and there are always other, perhaps new, markets trying to muscle in.
For me it is the new markets that are particularly interesting. Several years ago I was invited by Saudia, the Saudi Arabian airline, to visit the Kingdom on a preliminary familiarization trip. Saudi Arabia was seeking to expand its programme of international tourism. In these cases, it is normal practice for the Ministry of Tourism or other such agency to invite representatives of cultural tourism in various chosen countries to visit, and then to get feedback on the choice of sites and facilities offered.
Saudi Arabia does not seem a typical tourist destination. Of course, the Kingdom receives hundreds of thousands of visitors each year for the Hajj, but it has also much to offer to those wishing to visit for leisure purposes with many sites of architectural and archaeological interest. The Kingdom has had a rich and varied history, but lack of access to the country in the past has meant that this is little known and appreciated. In ancient times the wealth of the Arabian peninsular was based not on oil, but on the control of lucrative trade routes: luxury goods from the Far East and India followed a route around the south and west of the Arabian peninsula. There was also a thriving incense trade: frankincense and myrrh occur naturally only in Southern Arabia and the horn of Africa and were in great demand in the ancient Mediterranean for religious and funerary purposes, for example, Egyptian mummification rituals rely heavily on both spices.

The inhabitants of Arabia, and especially a people called the Nabataeans who flourished between the 1st centuries BC and AD, controlled this trade and left behind spectacular rock cut tombs and other remains. The site of Madain Saleh, to the North of Medina, was along the main trade route. It is a spectacular archaeological site, with large sandstone massifs rising out of the desert as you approach, dotted with the classical facades of tombs housing the elite of the society. Soldiers, doctors, administrators and land-owning women are amongst the professions of those inside the tombs and the inscriptions also detail fines for anyone who desecrates the structures. One of the wonderful things about visiting a country with few tourists is that you can explore a site in relative isolation. Every time I have visited Madain Saleh we have been the only group on the site, a sharp contrast to the most famous Nabataean site, Petra in Jordan, which always seems to be busy.

The site is crossed by the remains of the Hejaz railway, which was built by the Ottoman sultan, to take pilgrims from Damascus to the holy city of Mecca. The railway began operating in 1908 and part of it was famously destroyed by Lawrence of Arabia during the Arab revolt in 1916. Several stations along the route have now been restored and can be visited, both at Madain Saleh and further south towards Jeddah. Jeddah has received more tourists than other parts of the Kingdom since cruise ships have docked there for some time. The city is notable for its traditional architecture of the Ottoman period (which is being carefully restored under the stewardship of the energetic Sami Nawar) and also for the fantastic modern sculptures which line the Corniche.

In the al-Jawf region in the north of the kingdom, in ancient times the Nabataeans were also to be found controlling the trade route into Iraq. These routes were vast, and in fact to visit the different parts of Saudi Arabia tourists need to take internal flights, something which underlines just how impressive these ancient traders were. The town of Doumat al Jandal was on the caravan route to Babylon and is a site of great antiquity, first mentioned in the annals of the Mesopotamian kings in the 8th century BC. The records show that Doumat al Jandal was the capital city of a series of powerful Arab queens who were accorded the same respect and status as the Egyptian pharaoh. The city was obviously wealthy and important, and came under attack many times, so it is not surprising that a large walled fortress is to be found there. On one occasion when I was with a group we were asked by a local to eat at his home. This act of generosity provided an insight into Arab hospitality and culture which is difficult to find in more developed tourist destinations, and the group felt very privileged indeed to feast on chicken and rice with a local family.

A short distance from Doumat Al Jandal is a dramatic complex of standing stones near the town of Sakaka. Al-Rajajil is the local name for this ancient site and means ‘the men’ a reference to the fact that from a distance the stones look like clusters of men in conversation. More than fifty groups of stone pillars, now toppled or broken in many cases, appear to be strewn across the complex, yet on close inspection it seems that the groups were originally carefully aligned on a North-South axis and oriented to face East. On the basis of flint tools and pottery sherds found in the area around the pillars, the site has been dated to the mid 4th millennium BC – at least one thousand years older than the famous standing stones at Stonehenge in England. It is an extremely evocative site, and the fact that you are likely to be the only people for miles around makes this even more special.

The Kingdom has also many sites which celebrate its more recent past. Gazing on the ruins of Dir’aiyah, a short distance from the modern capital of Riyadh, it is difficult to imagine that the town was finally abandoned only just over twenty years ago. Now undergoing a major project of restoration, the town is of especial importance since it is the site of the founding of the first Saudi state under the al-Saud, the ruling family of the Kingdom, whose ancestors had settled in this oasis in the mid 15th century AD. It was from this oasis town in the Wadi Hanifa that the al-Saud and their followers waged a series of successful military campaigns until achieving domination and moving their capital to Riyadh. Most of the remains that can be seen today date from the last two centuries or so. The architecture of the town is formed of mud brick with occasional courses of stone laid onto foundations of limestone blocks. Riyadh too has its attractions: not least the wonderful National Museum, which is well worth a visit. For a visitor though, the atmosphere in Riyadh is slightly more constraining than other parts of the country. Women visitors, of course, need to wear an abaya and scarf (though not in their hotel) but none of my group have ever mentioned that they found this onerous. Male tourists should, of course, avoid shorts or other inappropriate attire.

Other regions of Saudi Arabia have their own distinctive character, and the Asir region is on the south is justifiably celebrated for its distinctive architecture. Here, there is a greater emphasis on stone rather than mud brick, reflecting the natural resources of the region, and also the fact that this part of the kingdom receives greater rainfall. The decoration of the houses, both internal and external has been the subject of various studies and publications: the interiors of the houses are painted in bright colours and this task is carried out by the women. Men, however, are responsible for the intricate carvings on the doors, and invest the decoration with symbols of various, and often long forgotten meanings. These are only a few highlights of the tourist attractions of the country, and it must be stressed that to join a cultural tour of Saudi Arabia you need to be prepared to cover huge distances and take some internal flights. It is a huge country – about five times the size of France.

People who are interested in cultural tourism are generally sympathetic to the local way of life and customs, and are ready to accept any restrictions for the length of their stay. For a guest lecturer, such as myself, spending time in the company of such individuals and being able to share one’s enthusiasm with them is very rewarding. I also like the way that tourism of this type builds bridges: on a recent trip to Iran I was pleased to see that there were a large number of groups of American tourists there. I hope that visitors to these less well known destinations, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, will return to their own country full of stories of the wonderful sights and fantastic hospitality they have received, and if this is the case then I consider myself successful in my role as a tour guide.

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