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Saudi Arabia Tourism

Saudi Arabia: Beyond oil, there is tourism

Hazel Heyer l Special to eTN  Jun 26, 2008

Tourism is the new, emerging economic driver of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, apart from oil.

Tourism is the next best thing the Saudis are offering, said His Royal Highness Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, (formerly the secretary general of the previously-called Supreme Commission for Tourism or SCT) now the chairman of the board of directors reporting directly to the King of Saudi Arabia.

According to the royal figure who runs the Saudi Arabia Commission for Tourism and Antiquities and who oversees the formation of a modern national tourism administration responsible for the planning, development, promotion and regulation of the tourism industry in his country, tourism investment is at its peak right now in the kingdom. He said: “There’s quite a bit of investment opportunities in Saudi Arabia. We have a robust tourism program and long-haul perspective for the industry. Today, we have proposals to run the heritage sites. With our perspectives, we want to tap into this cultural side of Saudi Arabia with the help of government incentives – where people can invest in smaller rural areas or untapped, ineffective smaller regions in the country which cannot start on their own, just yet.”

Prince Sultan announced his five-year strategic plan that gives the tourism industry a great leap forward. And with his new title, he embraces new and bigger responsibilities that according to him are quite a challenge. Further, he is focused on ushering major programs for developing historic villages of Saudi Arabia. “This year, we’re already in the process of reviving them to match the idea of developing inns along the country side,” he added.

However, the prince admits that though they are keen, the readiness level is not there. He said: “We cannot truly open up. Our tour operators, our travel agents are not ready because they’ve only started from being tour guides basically. I, myself, have yet to pass the test. Believe it or not.”

Appointed to execute the heritage master plan involving the antiquities and museums sector, the commission has just been given a tighter grip on the heritage sector. A new law that transports over the next 11 months the authority over Saudi hotel accommodations to Prince Sultan’s organization from the Ministry of Trade and Industry encompasses classification of all kingdom hotels; the process will start in the next months beginning in the Medina area, which has most hotels in the country. He will also introduce new accommodation type, small inns in the countryside or heritage hotels. “We are also doing major studies with international organizations to look into beautiful palaces in Saudi, to convert them or build around them major hotel accommodation,” he said.

Another major breakthrough is finally easing the visa policy in the kingdom, especially for those who would be arriving for business and prolonging their stays for leisure purposes. Prince Sultan said the council has actually introduced the e-system for reduction of red tape in visa processing and conversion. “My organization, which is one of the few e-organizations in the country, took this task over to the visa sector. We’ve already put in a system that will do the following: ships coming through port of Arabia channel cannot be stopped in-transit so that people would not need to get off but enjoy the visa change on board. Secondly, using the Umrah plus, visitors can now use their entry from religious tourism into regular tourism – done automatically in no more than 12 hours. Tourists visas have already been decreed and the e-systems under the Ministries of Trade and Foreign Affairs are in place approving groups coming through the system,” he said.

Currently, business visas are easy to get. Within a few hours, businessmen can obtain one. Hence, Prince Sultan sees major opportunities in extending those visas to leisure by the launch of the new visa policy in 2009.

Prince Sultan sits on the board of the Saudi Arabian Civil Aviation Authority. He announced that 27 airports have recently been upgraded. Two more airports are to undergo facelift this year and four more will get expanded this 2008. About 30 airports have been planned to be fully operating in the KSA within his tenure. He said: “We’ve already proposed the first airport city in Jeddah. Not only will we build the airport, we will also build the conference/convention centers/ exhibition halls and accommodation. Riyadh and Medina will be next. Three main airports will be ready within the next years which are being divided up to be self-managed by the civil aviation. The civil aviation which I now chair is going through massive transformation.”

Transport re-engineering is on the drawing board as well. Prince Sultan said that, having gained from the developments of highways in the Emirates, he met with an American group which is eager to start up a fund for $5 billion as Saudi has an incredible amount of work to do in infrastructure development – not entire land transport, but in road stops and services. “This is one of our biggest projects next year,” he said.

Having been the first Arab man ever sent into orbit, Prince Sultan bin Salman carries the distinction of being a crew member of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’a Space Shuttle Discovery Mission 51G back in 1985. It’s obvious it did not surprise many how he pioneered tourism.

With this background, he said that seeing what King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud is doing, he wonders whether he’s actually been to space, too, in his perspective or vision. He said: “When you have the vision to see things from a distance, when you have the perspective to see both small and big things and have the ability to put them together in a mosaic, and make things possible, that's truly being quite far-sighted. When I went to space and saw earth, it was almost like seeing your own home from the outside path. I could see things happen in Saudi Arabia, the nation pulling things together. Saudi Arabia is a huge, huge country with a lot of resources and perspective, and certainly a lot of colors. As soon as you’re out there, it does not do Saudi a lot of justice. A lot of foreign tourists from other countries who receive the experience of Saudi Arabia eventually become repeat tourists, tagging their children along with them."

According to him, the KSA is a homegrown market, and that it will not fizzle away. "What we've done in the last eight years made people accept tourism in Saudi Arabia - something we've accomplished in the transformation and people's perception of tourism. People suddenly realized that tourism in Saudi is popular choice. The power of tourism of tourism in Saudi Arabia will always be there. The demand for tourism and housing Riyadh city alone is 60,000 units per year. There's incredible demand and rate of return on investment. The same regions now are meeting with each other today are demanding to create activities due to the tourism economic activities in the area."

Saudi Arabia:  Beyond oil, there is tourism
Saudi Arabian oil refinery at Yanbu (Image via

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