Following the conclusion of the recent school break in Saudi Arabia, many vacationers who visited Jeddah on the Red Sea left disgruntled and feeling ripped off. They had come in large groups, with families in tow, from towns and villages to the largest city on the Saudi west coast, expecting the comforts and conveniences of a vacation spot.
Instead, what they got were high prices that did not match the services provided, maddening traffic jams and lots of road diversions. Coupled with the lack of entertainment, other than an outing to the overcrowded waterfront, there were not many avenues for fun and games. The malls were there, but only because there was nothing else to do.
The disappointment among the visitors reached a level where comments expressing their dissatisfaction were published in several dailies. Some claimed that the authorities such as the municipality, the tourist authority and the hospitality industry were either highly incompetent or totally oblivious to the woes of the visitors, woes expressed in the past years but those that have not been addressed.
Sami, a teacher from Tabuk in the northern region of the country, had come to Jeddah with his family of five, claiming that he was expecting far more than what he got. In his words: “The price of accommodation for me and my family was far higher than what I had expected. I had to pay as we were already in the city and with the short school break, I did not want to disappoint my children by taking the long journey back home. With the little that was left over, there was not much we could do. I do not think we will be returning back soon.”
Mansour, another visitor, had also brought his family from Madinah to Jeddah for the short school break. “I was fortunate to book a furnished flat early on for a somewhat reasonable price. We usually escape the overcrowding in Madinah during school breaks. However, unfortunately, the city we came to was far more overcrowded and very difficult to get around. It was very difficult to navigate in the city with so many roads under construction and detours around every corner. On more than one occasion we were lost for considerable periods of time. Would I do it again? I doubt it.”
Ahmad from the south had come to Jeddah for the first time, also accompanied by his family. “I had heard so much about Jeddah being the Paris of this country. Coming from a small town, Jeddah for me is a large cosmopolitan city. It has malls and restaurants that are first rate. But it is also very disappointing as it is highly disorganised, traffic is unruly and there are few places to go without the feeling of being in a crowd. How can we call it a holiday if I have to spend the majority of the time driving my family around in slow-moving traffic?”
Samira, a divorced mother of two young men, had come with her sons to visit relatives. This was her first visit in almost two decades and she was looking forward to the trip. “I left the city when I got married more than 20 years ago and never got the opportunity to come for a visit. After my divorce last year, I promised my sons that the first break they have from school, we would come to the city of their mother’s birth. Needless to say, our expectations fell short with all the problems of the city’s infrastructure. The only positives from the trip were a chance to reunite with my family. Other than that, it would have been far more enjoyable if I had taken my sons to the UAE for the break.”
Dubai, in particular, has been on the lips of many travellers to Jeddah. Perhaps they were expecting something similar. Media announcements of festivals and outings being held in Jeddah lured some into thinking that they would find something comparable and closer to home.
However, the reality is that Dubai is in a class of its own regionally. It continues to attract more and more visitors from the region. Saudis have been heading to the UAE in record numbers in recent times. With Egypt, Syria and Lebanon in turmoil and not very encouraging for tourism, Dubai has become the regional destination of choice.
Saudis cite a variety of reasons for this. The cheerful welcome by airport officials, the variety and quality of accommodation, properly laid out roads and highways and the variety of entertaining fare available make Dubai a popular choice. Many also cite the cosmopolitan feel of Dubai, along with the fact that “malls are open throughout the day without those irritating and frequent break times that shop assistants here have”.
As one Saudi tourist said: “Dubai knows the secret of successful tourism. Give the visitors what they want and they will keep coming back. Now, when will the Saudi tourism authorities learn that?”
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. You can follow him at Twitter.Com/@talmaeena