Why Yanbu on the Red Sea is fast becoming one of Saudi Arabia’s must-see destinations
DUBAI: A few hours drive west of Medina is the historic port city of Yanbu, the second largest settlement on Saudi Arabia’s western Red Sea coast. With its curious heritage and growing wealth of attractions, this unassuming coastal gem is fast becoming a must-see destination in its own right.
Visitors to Yanbu can stroll along the city’s historic harbor, sample Red Sea-caught fish prepared in the local style, and explore the newly restored Al-Lail souk, or night market, where they can buy local dates. , green mulukhiyah leaves, as well as other sweets and treats.
At night, the old port comes alive with locals flocking to the open-air restaurants overlooking the tranquil waters, protected from the waves by unspoiled coral reefs that have long drawn divers to shore.
As one of the oldest ports on the Red Sea, Yanbu has a history dating back at least 2,500 years, when it served as a crucial staging post on the ancient spice and incense route from Yemen to the Egypt and beyond to the wider Mediterranean.
Its strategic importance in the world of commerce continues to this day. Further south along the coast from the idyllic old town is a major oil terminal which houses three oil refineries, a plastics factory and several other petrochemical plants.
While Yanbu has long enjoyed a reputation as a place of commerce, it is now transforming into something of a tourist hotspot.
“In the past, most tourists came from Saudi Arabia, but now we welcome more foreigners, from France, Germany and the United Kingdom,” Ghazi Al-Enezi, who heads the agency, told Arab News. operator Ghazi Tours based in Riyadh.
“Yanbu has received many visitors via cruises from Jeddah, cities in Egypt and Jordan.”
In 2014, Al-Enezi was named the best tour guide in the Kingdom by the Saudi government. Since then his fledgling business has grown into a successful business, with 12 staff members touring across the country and a host of local and international clients.
The Kingdom’s growing tourist market has boosted Yanbu’s hotel industry, with the recent opening of a Novotel, Holiday Inn and Al-Ahlam Tourism Resort. This in turn has created new business for local cafes and restaurants.
“Many hotels and restaurants are now opening, and locals are also trying to serve visitors their own local dishes,” Al-Enezi said. “The weather is nice too. It is not too hot in the summer, which means that during the hot months people can escape to Yanbu.
Beyond its picturesque charm, favorable climate and natural beauty, Yanbu also has a special appeal for history buffs. British Army intelligence officer TE Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, lived in Yanbu for some time between 1915 and 1916 in a typical Hijazi building.
The British archaeologist, diplomat and writer became famous for his role in the Arab Revolt and the Sinai and Palestine campaign against the Ottoman Empire during World War I.
Lawrence was deployed to the region to help the Arabs overthrow their Ottoman rulers, who had sided with Germany against Britain and France.
On December 1, 1916, the Ottoman forces of Fakhri Pasha launched a daring offensive against Yanbu in an attempt to reestablish control over the strategically vital port.
After some early Ottoman successes, the Arabs counter-attacked with the support of five British Royal Navy warships anchored off the coast. On January 18, 1917, the Ottomans were in full retreat.
Yanbu served as a supply and operations base for Arab and British forces for the rest of the war.
In 1975, the Saudi government decided to transform Yanbu into one of the two new industrial centers in the country, the other being Jubail on the Persian Gulf.
Since then, public and private development projects in Yanbu have enhanced its economic value and prestige, attracting huge petrochemical and logistics infrastructure.
Today, as the Kingdom undergoes yet another transformation, heralded by the Vision 2030 economic and social reform program, Yanbu’s fortunes are changing again – this time towards tourism, heritage and culture.
In 2020, the Ministry of Tourism launched a restoration project for TE Lawrence’s Hejazi House, renovating its white stone walls and ornate wooden screens in what would become the first of the ministry’s efforts to revive the old town. from Yanbu.
Soon other traditional Arab houses followed, with delicate restoration work launched to restore their coral stone walls and wooden lattice windows to their former glory. The revival of authentic Yanbu architecture has made the city a highly desirable place to visit.
Since then, a host of tour operators have sprung up across Yanbu to cater to this recent influx of visitors.
Al-Enezi, which has been running Yanbu tours since 2008, offers a choice of two main tours – one along the coast that includes a visit to Oyster Island, known for its pristine beaches and clear waters, and another in the urban heart of Yanbu which introduces visitors to local heritage and crafts.
It also takes visitors to Umluj, located 150 km north of Yanbu. Often referred to as the “Maldives of Saudi Arabia”, the coastal city is made up of more than 100 small islands where hotels and other attractions are currently being built.
Also outside the city, thrill-seeking visitors are drawn to Mount Radwa, with its jagged red-hued peaks that tower some 2,282 meters above sea level, making it the highest point of the Al-Nakhil range.
Known for its rich biodiversity, including lynx, tigers, ibexes and wolves, visitors can enjoy a game drive along the rugged highland landscape and stop at high altitude villages to sample local honey .
For Al-Enezi, the tourism industry in Yanbu today is unrecognizable from what passed for it when he started organizing tours there 14 years ago.
“It was difficult for the few of us who worked in the company at the beginning because at that time the Saudi government did not focus on tourism and few people came to visit the Kingdom,” he said. he told Arab News.
“But it’s now a growing and evolving business.”