Tourism is the new buzzword in Saudi Arabia. It has triggered excitement for both Saudis and foreigners as business ventures are explored, new programs initiated and vast sums invested in the industry to promote tourism for Saudis and encourage non-Saudis to visit the Kingdom.
      While Saudi Arabia has been a travel destination for centuries, with millions of people visiting the Kingdom each year from around the world, the vast majority of visitors have historically been Muslims who undertake the pilgrimage to the Holy Mosque in Makkah as part of the Hajj or the Umrah, the lesser pilgrimage. In recent decades, millions have visited the Kingdom on business as the country has undergone dramatic development. Citizens from the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have also been traveling to the Kingdom in growing numbers in recent years to visit the various vacation sites and tourist attractions. 


Secretary-General of the Supreme Commission for Tourism Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz.

     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  groups.


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  regard.


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 wonders,
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  abroad.
     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  servant."


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 capital.

     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."


The coral reefs of the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf
are prime destinations for scuba diving and snorkeli
ng.

     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  heritage.
     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." {short description of image}

 


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