Changing holiday travel patterns in the Middle East have raised the profile of Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination for GCC nationals and expatriate residents.
Many GCC holiday-makers are reconsidering international travel in favour of regional destinations. Coupled with changes to Umrah laws, which enable the pilgrimage to be carried out year round, many are now extending their Umrah to include a Saudi Arabian holiday. GCC nationals do not require visas for Saudi Arabia.
The kingdom offers the tourist fascinating contrasts, a distinctive blend of a modern country and timeless desert, East and West, old and new, where thousands of years of civilisation shape the culture and hospitality of its people.
Visitors can enjoy the variety and natural beauty of the landscapes, clean beaches, coral reefs in the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf, all backed by top notch tourism infrastructure.
As the kingdom's flagship carrier, Saudi Arabian Airlines was the first to plant the seeds of tourism with its 'Discover Saudi Arabia' programme. Through this programme, visitors form all over the world can now visit Saudi Arabia as part of a tour group.
In April 2000, the Supreme Commission for Tourism (SCT) was formed to develop programmes for tourism and remove any obstacles that might hamper tourism expansion.
The commission is also responsible for preserving tourist sites and artifacts and coordinates the efforts of the public and private sectors in these matters.
According to Prince Sultan bin Salman, secretary-general of the commission, Saudis spend around SR53 billion ($14 billion) on tourism abroad annually.
The plan foresees that in 2020, 34.3 million tourists will visit the kingdom and 11.6 million travel abroad.
In 2000, tourism in Saudi Arabia generated an estimated SR37.8 billion ($10 billion) and employed 489,000 people.
Revenues in 2020 will top SR86 billion ($23 billion) and create 1.8 million jobs, Prince Sultan has forecast.
Saudi Arabian Airlines' tour packages originally targeted selected groups of tourists, particularly from middle and upper income segments. Such clients often look for a different experience to the ordinary sightseeing tours.
'Discover the Kingdom for Saudi Arabia' offers cultural, historical, heritage, archaeological elements and underwater sights (diving) thus creating an educational experience for visitors.
Many tourists visit archaeological sites at Riyadh, Jeddah. Hofouf, Najran, Abha, Taif, Tabouk, Hail, Al Jouf and Gizan.
The Asir region is a prime tourist destination with superb mountain views, refreshing breezes, terraced hillsides and the Abha Valley - home of the seven-kilometre cable car line, summer festivals and sports events.
Saudi Arabian Airlines is increasing flights to this region and ensuring smooth connections with the Kingdom's major gateways to Asir. The airline has a variety of offers for visitors flying to Asir.
General interest and specialist sightseeing tours have also been made available, enabling visitors to enjoy the experience of their particular choice.
A wealth of natural attractions coupled with promotions and participation in events such as the Arabian Travel Market have made the kingdom confident of boosting the number of tourists to the country.
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