Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 15 October 2019

Saudi Arabia's top tour guide: Visitors will change the rhythm of our country

'It's like when you have a big house and it's beautiful and well decorated and you have good furniture but you don't have guests,' Samir Komosani says

Samir Komosani has been a tour guide in Jeddah for 18 years. Reem Mohammed / The National
Samir Komosani has been a tour guide in Jeddah for 18 years. Reem Mohammed / The National

Samir Komosani was one of Saudi Arabia's first tour guides; perhaps the first in Jeddah.

Eighteen years ago, he first began showing international visitors around the kingdom. But only now does he truly feel like his career has been fulfilled.

"People in my country feel this is a dream come true. To see those people coming to see this beautiful land," he tells The National in Riyadh, ahead of the country's imminent tourism regime announcement.

"We want tourists more than you expect. It's like when you have a big house and it's beautiful and well decorated and you have good furniture but you don't have guests, and you would love to receive them."

The kingdom is set to announce details of new visa rules at a gala event at the Unesco-listed Ad Diriyah, north of Riyadh on Friday night.

The first Jeddah tour guide

It's an historic moment for the world, but for Komosani too, who began his tourism business when he was 28 years old in Jeddah.

A friend of his had a guest visiting from the United States and needed someone to show him around, so asked for Komosani's help.

"The first thing that came to my mind was to go to a five star hotel to find one. But they didn't have any ... and actually then I find out that there is no tour guide in Jeddah.

My brother was teaching at university - I asked if there was any department related to tourism and again, there were none."

And so, Komosani decided he would give it a go. He was, after all, born in Jeddah's Old City, and had "heard stories when I was young and read a lot of books" about his homeland. But he admits pioneering the tour guide industry in the kingdom was "not an easy thing to do". He started with his friend's guest; something of a trial run.

"I took him on a tour of Jeddah, and after I took him [out] we went to our friend's house and we were sharing dinner together and this friend said 'this tour guide was one of the best I have met in my whole life'."

The rest, they say, was history.

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In pictures: Saudi Arabia's tourism drive

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After Komosani set up his tour guide company, he was mostly showing guests of businessmen coming to the country around. Business then picked up to serve domestic tourists, groups and school children, and a few international tourists curious about Saudi Arabia. Then he was also serving Hajj pilgrims who wanted to look around while they were here.

In the last 18 years, he has witnessed "unbelievable changes" to the tourism industry here.

"Back then, oil was the source of income for the country.

"There was no attention to tourism. Travel is an industry and in an industry you want the full formula: attention from the government, marketing, job availability, education and the community."

Komosani was also officially recognised as the country's top tour guide, he says. The Saudi Commission for Culture and National Heritage had wanted to regulate the industry by introducing certifications, and called all known tour guides to Riyadh for training.

"Through the exams, I was number one," he says.

He's now trained 743 tour guides, including the first female guide. That number pales in comparison the country needs going forward, however - Komosani says there is a demand for 3,000 new tour guides in the next year alone.

Saudi jobs boost is going to be 'amazing'

These days, most of his clients are from Europe, the US and Asia, and are people simply keen to know more about the kingdom. However, there's also the odd celebrity guest too.

When wrestling superstars Mark Henry and Mojo Rawley were in Jeddah for the WWE’s Greatest Royal Rumble in 2018, Komosani was on hand to show them around Al Balad. When 50 Cent came for Jeddah Season this year, Komosani also got the call. A compilation video posted by the rapper at the end of his trip shows several clips of Komosani.

His face lights up as he speaks of the impending announcement of the tourist regime on Friday, expected to detail the framework for the new tourist visas.

"It's going to change the rhythm of life here," Komosani smiles.

"The jobs that are going to come are going to be amazing, the infrastructure is going to be taken care [of], also the economy of the industry will attract people.

Specific details about the visas have so far been scarce, but it is expected that tourists could be eligible to enter the kingdom from this month.It is understood the new e-visa or visa on arrival services will be extended to 49 countries, including the UK, US, Canada and Australia. Spokespeople for the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage have also teased a second big reveal on Friday, saying there would be an announcement of a "significant commitment of private sector investment".

"I think we were born to be in the hospitality business and the tourism business, because thousands of years ago this land used to receive millions of people to go for Hajj as pilgrims," Komosani says.

"So we are born to serve them and receive them and to be nice to them and accommodate them."

Updated: October 14, 2019 10:27 AM

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