Step by step, Saudi Arabia slowly opens its doors

by Jason J Nash

Saudi Arabia is not the first place that comes to mind for leisure tourists.

In the past, what there was of the travel and tourism industry was dominated by the Hajj in the western provinces, and by business tourism. However, there are strong signs that the government wants to change, especially since the accession of King Abdullah bin AbdulAziz Al Saud.
Back in 2000 the government set up the Supreme Commission for Tourism (SCT) with the task of improving standards within the industry, and developing them to a point whereby more leisure tourists would start to come to Saudi Arabia. So far more than $133 million has been spent on getting the SCT’s operations up and running. The goal is to encourage Hajj tourists to stay for longer periods in the country, while encouraging other tourists interested in Saudi Arabia’s landscape and history to visit. One of the other driving factors behind the decision to open up the country to more tourism is the need to create jobs for Saudi Arabian nationals.
In 2005 there were 10.4 million inbound tourists according to MAS, the Saudi Tourism Information and Research Centre, slightly down on the 2004 figure of 11.1 million inbound tourists. Of the 10.4 million, some 2.4 million were day trips into the kingdom, while the rest were overnight stays. The average occupancy rate in the hotels sector was 56 per cent, with average length of stay for both Saudi nationals and foreigners being two days. The Middle East was the source of 70 per cent of the inbound tourist trips, with South-East Asia being the next largest group at 14 per cent. Obviously, the overwhelming majority of these trips were connected with either Hajj or Umrah tourism, with business and visiting relatives and friends following.
One of the big stumbling blocks that Saudi Arabia needs to overcome before it can become more of a destination for tourism is to improve the present visa system. Creating a tourist visa on demand system, or one that is less complicated, is needed to encouraging more visitors in all categories. As anyone who has gone to the Kingdom knows, the visa application process can take time, though has been improving greatly of late thanks to the granting of 24 hour visas for business travellers.
Another key plank in improving Saudi Arabia’s capacity to deal with tourism has been the opening up of the skies for more carriers. The introduction of low-cost airlines Air Arabia and SAMA has improved the capacity of the air sector, and made it easier for a greater number of people to view air travel as an affordable option. Inbound trips increased by 23 per cent between 2000 and 2005, while the all important outbound increased by 33 per cent.
Although it may take time for Saudi Arabia to become a more popular destination, especially considering the social rules that travellers need to adhere to during their visit, the potential exists for it to break out of its reliance on religious tourism.