IN 2004, Saudi Arabia received almost 8.6 million international tourists.
In the first six months of 2005, those numbers grew 21 per cent over the corresponding period, putting the year’s estimated total (figures as yet unavailable) above 10 million.
The majority of these come from Kuwait and the UAE. However, more than 43 per cent travel to the country for religious purposes (the country is host to two of the mosques Islam considers most holy) while 28 per cent come on business.
It is to boost the numbers of that other 29 per cent that the country has announced plans to issue for the first time tourist visas this year, moving beyond existing programmes such as Saudi Arabian Airlines’ Discover Saudi Arabia, which brought in more than 5000 Americans, Europeans and Africans last year on one- to two-week package tours to resorts and heritage sites in Jeddah, Riyadh, Abha, Dammam and Najran.
“The government sees tourism as the industry of the future and has focused its attention on it. We will open new doors to tourism in all areas: sports, cultural visits, family tours, adventures and other attractions for foreigners,” Prince Sultan bin Salman, secretary-general of the country’s Supreme Commission for Tourism told media. “Also, we have conducted a total survey of tourism potentials in the country and have identified more than 12,000 tourist sites.”
This is in line with requests from Umrah performers, 70 per cent of whom, from 82 countries, said they wished to visit other parts of the Kingdom besides the holy places, according to a recent survey.
Plans included setting up a tourism information and research centre, joint ventures, developing new tourism areas and attracting investment. “In five years the government might have returns of around SR11 billion ($2.93 billion),” he says. The country spends an estimated SR3 billion on travel and tourism annually.
Prince Sultan says investment in the sector would not be affected by recent spate of terror attacks in the country.
The Kingdom expects domestic tourism to generate around SR25 billion annually in the coming years, and, according to a recent study, a total of SR101 billion by 2020, by when tourist flights are expected to increase to 1,411 million including 128 million domestic flights. The SCT also hopes that the tourism sector will create 2.3 million jobs for Saudis in five years and 105 million direct and indirect jobs by 2020.
Driven by a fast-growing young population, a main thrust of the Kingdom’s tourism plan has been 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 these could be tempted back into domestic tourism.
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 sqm and 6,366 heritage and antiquities sites in the Kingdom, 1,975 of them are considered part of the country’s architectural heritage.
The SCT is also spreading tourism awareness in schools. Sixty-five volunteers have trained 2,600 teachers who will help educate more than 150,000 students.
Meanwhile, new projects and properties continue to be announced and opened, including a SR10.5 billion trans-national railway line. Last year, The SCT announced its intention to set up new tourism projects worth SR50 billion, including projects on the Red Sea coast as well as planned tourist centres in the Kingdom’s rural areas. A new company, Siraj Hospitality Investment, with a paid up capital of $500 million, will invest in a number of hotels in the SR100 billion King Abdullah Economic City as well as resorts, motels, recreational and entertainment facilities around the country.
Perhaps the most glamourous of all, though, is the Hilton’s Qasr Al Sharq, or Palace of the Orient, due to open early this year in Jeddah. The Kingdom’s cities will need 129,000 hotel rooms and 74,000 furnished apartments to accommodate the growing number of domestic and international tourists, according to the SCT.