Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a major drive 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.
Spearheading this drive is the the Supreme Commission for Tourism (SCT), which was set up by the government three years ago as part of a 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 the SCT. “We will open new doors to tourism in all areas: sports, cultural visits, family tours, adventures and other attractions for foreigners.”
“Also, we have conducted a total survey of tourism potentials in the country and have identified more than 12,000 tourist sites,” he says. The Kingdom expects domestic tourism to generate around SR25 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 relatively 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 says investment in the sector would not be affected by recent spate of terror attacks in the country. “We plan to invest SR1.3 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 SR11 billion,” he says.
Meanwhile, the Kingdom plans to issue tourist visas for the first time, which will would enable tourists to download application forms from the Internet at www.mas.gov.sa.
Prince Sultan says the SCT is 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 says
But he adds that 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 number 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 (GDP), second after oil.
The SCT’s Internet presence, at www.sauditourism.gov.sa, promotes such attractions as historical sites and spectacular desert landscapes as well as swimming, diving and parachuting. But experts say the country would have an uphill battle in competing with well-developed tourism in countries such as Egypt and Lebanon.