With the beginning of the 90-day summer break only a month away, the assistant deputy secretary-general for marketing for the Saudi General Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SGCTA), Fahad Al-Jarboa, says that the prime goal of the commission is to target the Saudi domestic market and try to encourage more Saudis to vacation in the Kingdom this year.

“We choose to focus first and foremost on the local market for the obvious reason that Saudis, in particular families, have been targeted by competing destinations, such as Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain,” Al-Jarboa said.

Commenting on the success of Egypt’s summer tourism promotion (it topped the destination list among Saudis last year) Egyptian Tourism Minister Zuhair Garana reportedly said that Egypt is appealing to Arab tourists in particular due to the cultural similarities.

According to reports, 4.5 million Saudi tourists spent an estimated SR70 billion in 2007 on tourism abroad, a 40 percent increase from the previous year. Saudi tourists spent SR153 million in the UAE and SR50 million in Bahrain last year. This is money that Saudi tourism officials would like to see spent in the Kingdom.

“The SGCTA is now in its fifth year of implementing a national tourism strategy, which includes a 20-year strategy and a five-year action plan dedicated to marketing Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination,” said Al-Jarboa.

According to Al-Jarboa, the number of domestic tourist trips currently stands at 27-30 million annually and the SGCTA targets a minimum 5 percent growth every year. Inbound traffic, which includes Haj and Umrah pilgrims, stood at 9.8 million.

Officials also aim to promote tourism to the Kingdom in neighboring countries of Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the UAE and Oman.

“Our focus is primarily on family oriented tourism and our aim is to make Saudi Arabia inviting for couples and families who are seeking an authentic tourism experience within a social atmosphere that preserves traditional Islamic and Arab values and promotes family ties,” Al-Jarboa explained.

The SGCTA is also in the process of developing a complete two-year program to upgrade the hospitality and travel agency sectors, which Al-Jarboa says will define a long-term plan to bring about a comprehensive improvement in both sectors.

Despite all the initiatives currently under way to improve the Saudi tourism infrastructure, many Saudis still plan to go abroad for their leisure activities.

“My family bought an apartment in Cairo and is in the process of purchasing a house in (the Egyptian resort) Sharm El-Sheikh,” said Noura Muhammed, 19. “For us and other families we know the year leading up to summer vacation is spent in sole anticipation of traveling abroad. Many parents use the trip to encourage their children to do well in school, in order to be able to travel instead of staying in the Kingdom to retake exams.”

Hidayah B., a 16-year-old Saudi who travels to Spain each year, agreed.

“There is nothing in Saudi Arabia that is enticing enough to get Saudis to forget traveling and stay in the country during the summer break,” she said. “No cinemas, no big-name theme parks; only shopping malls, many of which can be found abroad with the same or newer merchandise that is not available here. I think the SGCTA should try to think also about what the young population would enjoy if they really want to keep Saudis home this summer.”