While the Kingdom already has a tourism infrastructure in the form of
modern hotels and travel facilities, the government early last year launched a
major effort to expand these facilities and promote tourism for Saudis and
citizens from fellow GCC states. Under the new program, moreover, visitors
from all over the world can now see the wonders of Saudi Arabia as part of tour
The Holy Mosque in Makkah is visited by millions
of Muslims from across the Kingdom and the world every year.
The cornerstone of this effort was the formation in April 2000 of the
Supreme Commission for Tourism (SCT) to manage this drive. The primary role
of the Riyadh-based commission, which reports directly to the Council of
Ministers, is to develop a program to promote tourism. To achieve this objective,
the SCT was directed to evaluate the tourist-related infrastructure and facilities,
devise plans to expand such facilities, remove any obstacles that might hamper
expansion of tourism, provide facilities and incentives for investment in the
industry, preserve tourist sites and arts such as handicrafts and cottage
industries, and coordinate the efforts of the public and private sectors in this
Ancient tombs cut from gigantic boulders and cliffs
at Madain Saleh are among
Saudi Arabia's many tourist attractions.
Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, the astronaut who traveled on
the U.S. space shuttle Discovery in 1985, was appointed secretary-general of the
new organization in May. The SCT then began meeting regularly to pinpoint
areas that need attention and initiate studies to determine a long-term strategy.
"The country was not ready before," Prince Sultan said in an interview
several months after assuming the helm of the SCT. "And before we opened the
door to tourists fully we had to make sure every facet in terms of tourism was
covered. Everything you can think of is linked to tourism, whether it be bottled
water, taxis or hotels."
Prince Sultan sees tourism as an important instrument, not only in helping
Saudis and foreigners become better acquainted with the sites and culture of the
various parts of the Kingdom, "but in a large perspective, also in helping further
preserve and develop the environment, our arts and crafts, our local agriculture
and our urban centers." Developing a manpower base for the industry, he
observes, is also beneficial to the Kingdom.
Prince Sultan says the SCT will expand the tourist industry in a well-
planned manner, making sure that the number of tourists grows at the same rate
as the facilities and services. In an interesting analogy, he says, "If you invite
someone for lunch and give them a bad meal, they probably won't come back for
another meal. We want to make sure we give a great meal."
Saudi Arabia has spectacular natural
such as its many deserts.
To ensure that the tourism program is headed in the right direction, the
SCT has commissioned studies by various consulting groups in Saudi Arabia and
abroad, and its senior officials, including Prince Sultan, have undertaken a
strenuous effort to immerse themselves in the tourist industry. Prince Sultan
explains that since taking charge of the STC, he has visited various parts of the
country and has met with tour directors in different cities in Saudi Arabia and
The SCT has already begun signing contracts with specialized companies
to help prepare the national tourism expansion plan. It is also in the process of
compiling a comprehensive database that will help the organization boost the
country's travel industry.
"The expansion of the tourist industry in Saudi Arabia will not be done by
the SCT. Our role is to define the industry and to help break down the barriers,
clear the path, oversee the programs, provide the information and support the
industry," the secretary-general explains. "We will be the partners for the
[tourist] industry, rather than the boss, and eventually we want to be the
Based on traditional architectural design
elements, the renovated Qasr Al-Hokm in the
historic section of Old Riyadh is a major attraction in the Saudi Arabian
Prince Sultan adds that the optimal expansion of the tourism industry will
be handled best at the regional level. Cooperation between the public and private
sectors will be undertaken in a manner that empowers people involved in the
industry at the regional level, "because they know their region best and how to
best serve it ... [the SCT's] role therefore will be on a national level."
The SCT is also studying regional tourism outside the Kingdom. "Tourists
should be able to link visits to countries such as Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Saudi
Arabia to see certain segments of history as they tie together," he says, adding as
an example that there are many Islamic sites in the Kingdom and neighboring
countries. Visiting several countries would allow people who are interested in
studying or exploring Islamic history to fully benefit.
Water sports, including
windsurfing are popular
at Saudi resorts.
There will also be a focus on domestic tourism. He explains that a major
priority of the tourism expansion program is to encourage Saudis to spend more
time traveling in their own country. The SCT hopes to achieve this objective
partly through the educational system. For example, field trips, study programs
and summer trips will be promoted for students and the general public. "We are
going to look into making tourism more appealing within the country as well as
abroad," he says.
Saudi experts observing the work of the SCT predict that the travel
market in the Kingdom will witness major changes in the near future. In 2001, for
example, the tourism industry is expected to grow by 20 percent. "The Kingdom
has many attractive tourist sites, including deserts, caves, mountains, sea shores
and so on, that await sound planning and proper use," Prince Sultan says.
One indication of the growth in tourism is that large numbers of tourists
from the United States, Europe and the Far East visited the Kingdom last year.
Reputable organizations such as the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC,
[see story on Page 6] have already begun sending groups to Saudi Arabia. "The
tours were very highly rated by participants," said Jacqueline Corbett of the
Smithsonian Study Tours Program. "There were instances where special
hospitality was extended to our group. We hope that there will continue to be a
strong interest; our two departures for 2000 have registered very well."
coral reefs of the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf
are prime destinations for scuba diving and snorkeling.
To achieve the long-term growth the SCT envisages, the public and
private sectors will have to invest billions of dollars in the tourism infrastructure
in coming years. "We have to ... find mechanisms and ways to apply
investment," Prince Sultan says, adding that the Kingdom already plays host to
more than two million Muslim pilgrims from around the world every year and a
large number of expatriates who work in the Kingdom. This experience will help
in the future expansion of the tourist industry.
Prince Sultan is highly encouraged about future prospects. He observes
that one benefit of tourism expansion is that it will open many windows for both
the residents of Saudi Arabia and visitors from abroad, and promote greater
understanding and a better appreciation for the Kingdom's rich culture and
He observes that the Kingdom is currently going through an important
phase in its history. "The restructuring of the economy, government and the
educational system ... [will] lead us to a new world," he says, adding that the
tourism expansion program is being undertaken in an environment where "things get done."