Tourism sector poised to open up
WITH innumerable tourist attractions — both tapped and untapped — Saudi Arabia has embarked on a major campaign to promote domestic tourism as part of its efforts to diversify revenue sources and prevent the flight of billions of dollars which its citizens spend abroad on tourism.
The government set up the Supreme Commission for Tourism (SCT) three years ago as part of its tourism development drive. 'The government sees tourism as the industry of the future and has focused its attention on it,' says Prince Sultan bin Salman, secretary-general of SCT. 'We will open new doors to tourism in all areas: sports, cultural visits, family tours, adventures and other attractions for foreigners.”
The Kingdom expects domestic tourism to generate around SAR25 billion ($6.66 billion) annually in the coming years. It also hopes that the tourism sector will create 2.3 million jobs for Saudis within five years.
Saudi Arabia already has a well-developed tourism infrastructure. The country has 7,068 tourist facilities including major hotels. It has built 3,354 public parks covering a total area of 44.6 million sq m.
Prince Sultan said investment in the sector would not be affected by recent bombings in the country. 'We plan to invest SAR1.3 billion over the next five years. We have shown the government our five-year plan in which we seek to carry out an intense restructuring of the tourism sector,' he added.
Prince Sultan said plans included setting up a tourism information and research centre, joint ventures, developing new tourism areas and attracting investments. 'In five years the government might have returns of around SAR11 billion,' he said.
The Kingdom plans to issue tourist visas for the first time. Prince Sultan said a system for issuing tourist visas would be ready soon. When completed, it would enable tourists to download application forms from the Internet at www.mas.gov.sa.
Prince Sultan said the SCT was coordinating its approach with the ministries of interior and foreign affairs. 'We will comply with a lot of security and other concerns of different ministries. All these concerns have been addressed. We are now waiting for the government's clearance. The whole idea is to make the visa policy hassle-free,' he told a recent press conference in Riyadh.
But he said the main thrust of the Kingdom's tourism drive was to encourage Saudis to travel inside the Kingdom. Currently, some 4.5 million Saudis travel abroad spending an estimated $8 billion a year overseas. At least part of this amount could be tempted back into domestic tourism.
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, gets around 7.5 million visitors per year, most of them Haj and Umrah pilgrims. The visits contribute up to nine per cent to the gross domestic product, second after oil. The commission has reached an agreement with the Ministry of Haj to turn Umrah agencies into tour operators.
In another push for the sector, the Cabinet endorsed the national tourism strategy recently. Some 600 experts and organisations took part in formulating the strategy. Prince Sultan said the strategy was the result of 14 months of intense work in the light of some 45 international experiments.
'We have conducted a total survey of tourism potentials in the country and have identified more than 12,000 tourist sites,' the prince said. The SCT also conducted 331 research projects and 15 surveys and tens of workshops and field visits to prepare the strategy, which seeks to protect the sites of historical importance.
'We have taken into consideration a number of principles while setting out the strategy, most importantly the Islamic fundamentals and the Kingdom’s social and cultural values,' he pointed out.
SCT’s Internet presence (www.sauditourism.gov.sa) boasts such attractions as the country's historical sites and spectacular desert landscapes as well as swimming, diving and parachuting. But some experts said the country would have an uphill battle in competing with well-developed tourism in countries such as Egypt and Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia is located to the west of the Asian continent, to the south of Europe and adjacent to the African continent. It covers almost 2,250,000 sq m occupying 80 percent of the Arabian Peninsula. It is bordered by the Red Sea to the west; the Arabian Gulf, the UAE and Qatar on the east; Kuwait, Iraq and Jordan to the north and Yemen and the Sultanate of Oman to the south.
According to the 1992 census, the Kingdom has a population of 17 million people. Twelve and a half million of them are Saudis with an average density of seven individuals per square kilometer. Presently, the population is more than 20 million. The rate of population growth is 3.6 percent with 84 per cent of people under 40. Those who are under 15 represent 46 per cent and women represent 49 per cent of the population.