So Saudi Arabia is now offering tourist visas, but why should anyone visit the country? KEITH J FERNANDEZ quizzes Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who says the country is going through an indepth transformation of its tourism sector

SAUDI Arabia made good on an old announcement at ATM this year: it will finally begin issuing non-religious tourist visas to foreigners this month through licenced tour operators, in a bid to develop the sector in the kingdom. Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, secretary-general of the Supreme Commission for Tourism, said three categories of tour guides would be licensed by the government: general, regional, and site-specific.

The change is part of a game plan that targets all kinds of tourism segments: villages and small towns are being opened up, resorts are being built, and the challenges of the MICE market are being examined. A new tourism law is likely in October and the kingdom will see at least five major tourism-related projects launched this year. A study has been commissioned a study to identify the needs of and classify the lodging sector, and its recommendations will be implemented next year. In collaboration with Accor, three tourism-related colleges are being established.
The country will also focus on domestic tourism, in a bid to tempt some of the 4.5 million outbound tourists to stay.
TTN caught up with Prince Sultan for more. Excerpts: 

So, why should people visit Saudi?
To change the image that you have of Saudi. It’s an experience we have had from everyone who has visited, they’ve had one image, and when they came, they were completely surprised. And we want to make it easier for people to come while we work on changing the image. This is a qualitative move to attract tourists to the kingdom.

How much of this is driven by the World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership?
Zero. We are talking about two things, we are talking about opening up or reforms and we are talking about tourism. There are reforms driven by the WTO, of course. But tourist visas have nothing to do with these. In terms of an alignment of tourism as a service sector, we have done that through our WTO membership and through the Ministry of Commerce, so they are completely aligned.
We are opening up Saudi because we are ready. We have got a lot to show in Saudi and we want people to come and see it. And of course, also driven by tourism, there is a big sector already in Saudi, a huge demand for tourism products and activities for the domestic market and the religious markets. For the Arab world and the Gulf markets, there is already an existing demand that we need to fulfil, so it really just falls into place.

Do you take any learnings from markets like Dubai?
Of course. We have gone through 100+ learning experiences and we still do. As we speak today, the new regional authorities being established in Saudi are going through a learning programme with five destinations including Dubai, Malaysia and New Zealand. The group that came to Dubai, about 15 of them, have been literally working, living and sleeping with the Dubai tourism authority. Through our master planning process in Saudi have really gone through the lengths to visit a lot of countries and talk to tourism authorities as well as to look at how other countries protect their heritage, how municipal leaders and the municipalities deal with issues of tourism, how the cities are run when they have an influx of tourists and so on. So it’s a complete in-depth transformation in the tourism sector.

What nightlife do you have?
Nightlife can mean anything ... We can provide you a very valuable experience that will hit your soul and your mind and send you home sober.

What about participation at fairs like ITB? Where else are you going to roll that out to?
We are taking it gradually. Our first priority, unlike many other markets who have to literally import tourists, is to meet the huge demand we have inbound, locally.

So will we see a Saudi Tourism Fair?
Of course, we’re going to see, hopefully a big one, next year. We also have a presence abroad, Berlin, London and Dubai and now we are going to go gradually into these target markets. We are very comfortable about building up that pace. The products are there, the sites are open and ready. It’s a big challenge.

Obviously, you’re going to license more tour operators to issue visas?
We have now licensed 18 and I imagine another 10-15 at least. We are very happy to have only five, even, those that are really high quality, tour operators who are not just tour operators but who can bring in people with visas and facilitate the entire tour. We also want tour operators who deal with the Saudi tourists’ demands. We don’t want just people who bring people from abroad, we want people who can provide local services as well.

What about appointing tour operators abroad, like in Germany?
We are doing it differently. We already started our fam trips, and are now bringing in tour operators from the US from other countries, some of whom have already inked agreements with local tour operators. I was talking to the Swiss today about bringing in a group of tour operators and they are very excited about that and to start developing programmes.

I believe people have to come in groups of four? Do they have to be related?
No, not really. We hope that man and wife will be married, but two ladies can come together. We have a limitation of a minimum age of about 30 for ladies travelling alone. As families, they can come in any age. We are saying that couples have to be married. The rules will be published in our website soon. There is also a guidebook.

What is the possibility of a rollback, or of visas being stopped, should the king change?
If it happens, it won’t be my decision. But I don’t think so. Saudi Arabia is committed to opening up and to businesses. It’s a country that needs business and it’s a huge market for investment and for tourism, so we are very comfortable at this point.

You were the first Arab-astronaut, and the only Muslim as well, so, is Saudi going to open up to space tourism? Ras Al Khaimah is already there.
They came to me, the people that did the work in Ras Al Khaimah. I know their work and its pretty good work and we will see. I know them very well, and I congratulate them Ras Al Khaimah for taking up this initiative. It’s a bit early for us to make those decisions.

Well, Virgin Galatic is looking around in this region.
If they come to us, we will talk.