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25 May, 2003

Saudi Arabia Opens Its Doors — Carefully

The first Saudi in space, Prince Sultan bin Salman, is to lead Saudi Arabia’s first tourism promotion drive. The conservative kingdom is going about it very, very carefully, and with good reason.

– From the 10th Arabian Travel Mart, May 6-9, 2003 in Dubai.

In this dispatch:


One of the world’s most religiously conservative and cloistered societies used the Arabian Travel Mart 2003 to launch its plunge into the perilously glitzy world of travel and tourism. In an experiment bound to be closely followed to see if and how traditional values of culture and religion can co-exist with the fun-and-frolic demands of ‘tourists’, Saudi Arabia announced that it has finally joined the roster of visitor-welcoming countries.

It was one of the ATM 2003’s most significant events and a landmark in the history of travel & tourism. A total of 33 Saudi exhibitors, mainly hotels and local operators, participated in the ATM and there is already talk of doubling the size of the stand at ATM 2004.

Several years of meticulous planning backed up by millions of dollars worth of consultancy and research went into the exercise. The country’s chief tourism promoter is Sheikh (rhymes with ‘shake’ not ‘sheek’) Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz AI Saud, who was also the first Muslim and Arab in space, a member of the space shuttle Discovery crew in 1985 when Saudi-US relations were enjoying happier days.

In flawless English, the telegenic former Saudi air-force pilot and now chairman of the Saudi Supreme Commission for Tourism outlined plans to attract visitors to the kingdom. Answering questions with poise and pizzazz, he was backed up by some superbly designed collaterals unveiling a country of surprising greenery, beaches, parks and sites of historic and religious importance in Islamic and Arab history.

In terms of policy, the Prince, 46, said all the right things — tourism is seen as being important to attract investment, protect culture, create jobs, etc., etc. Upon closer examination, however, it emerges that the door is being opened very, very carefully. The initial targets are domestic Saudi tourists, then pilgrims from the Islamic world visiting Saudi Arabia to perform the “lesser pilgrimage”, the Umrah, and finally citizens of the Gulf and Arab countries. Non-Muslims will be welcomed, but slowly, starting with those who are already resident in the Gulf and reasonably familiar with the conservative Saudi culture. The traditional markets of the West are being referred to as ‘specialised niche-markets’ which will take time to develop.

The prudence is understandable and necessary. Opening the door too wide too fast can backfire big-time, creating problems for local people and upsetting visitors. By contrast, targeting Umrah pilgrims is simpler — they are primarily a culturally well-tuned, captive market. They are long-stayers, repeaters and have often saved for years to perform the pilgrimage. Currently, such pilgrims are only allowed to visit the holy cities of Makkah (Mecca) and Madinah. Now, they will be able to visit other cities like Riyadh, Taif and a number of others as listed on the website http://www.sauditourism.gov.sa.

But there is some fine print. They will still need individual permission from the authorities of each city they wish to visit, and will need to be handled by licensed tour operators responsible for procuring those permits. Like the visa application for the Umrah, the application for what is being called the Umrah Plus will have to be submitted several weeks in advance. Invariably, it will go through a long learning curve as Saudi embassies and the hundreds of global operators who sell Umrah packages come to grips with the procedures and trials and tribulations of what-if-things-go-wrong scenarios.

The Saudis make no apologies for their slow-and-steady policy. “We are a highly conservative society, and we will remain so,” said one elegantly-robed Saudi official of the SCT who had no name-card and declined to give his name. Opening up to Muslim visitors avoids controversies over cultural problems like dress-codes for women or other insensitivities that may seem trivial under the traditional western definition of tourism. Most Muslim visitors see no problem with non-availability of alcohol or the male:female segregation rules. Even entering Saudi Arabia can involve rigorous checks of any publications and CDs that may be in the visitor’s possession. Clearly, Saudi Arabia is no place for anyone except those who really abide by the multiple codes of conduct that require visitors to show 100pc respect for local culture and traditions.

The Saudis have another factor to consider — preventing ‘tourists’ from exacerbating the problem with over-stayers and job-seekers. The country today gets about 2.5 million Umrah pilgrims, of whom Egyptians alone total 780,000, followed by Iranians (290,000), Pakistanis (280,000) and Syrians (190,000). Until a few years ago, about 20 pc of the total Umrah pilgrims were over-stayers. Though SCT marketing specialist Ousamah Aldeghather says the number has come down to 10 pc, even that is too high. Most of the source-countries of Umrah pilgrims are those with high levels of low-income workers seeking jobs in Saudi Arabia.

If the tourism policy is carefully implemented, Saudi Arabia cannot go wrong. Globally, it has a captive audience of nearly 1.2 billion Muslims who are obliged to perform the Haj, the main pilgrimage, at least once in their lives, if it is within their means. The Umrah is traditionally performed in the 8th month of the Muslim calendar just before the fasting month of Ramadan. The Haj is performed in the last month of the Islamic calendar. There is no equivalent in the Roman calendar as the dates of the Islamic lunar calendar vary from year to year. Combined, Haj and Umrah pilgrims total about 6.3 million, generating $9.64 billion in earnings.

Religious tourism is also immune to terrorism though it is likely that another major Saudi objective in promoting tourism — correct the image of Islam — may have hit the skids after the recent attacks in Riyadh. Indeed, it has been worse affected by SARS, which has led to a sharp drop in Umrah pilgrims, both as a result of health fears as well as Saudi-imposed restrictions on arrivals from a number of Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Indonesia, home to large Islamic populations.

The opening up to ‘tourism’ is being driven by the same factors as the other Gulf countries. Over the next few decades, the oil-era will wane and alternative means of economic survival are needed. Billions of dollars worth of investment is returning from traditional financial havens of Europe and North America, a process that has been expedited by the hysterical atmosphere of suspicion created by the US government’s investigations into suspected funding for terrorism.

Visitor-spending will drive the local real estate and retail market, two major sources of income for Saudi business groups. Tourism will allow some of that money to be spread around the country rather than concentrated in the dual holy-city corridor. A recent report in the Arab News newspaper said that Saudi businesswomen alone have $16.5 billion to invest.

At home, a large and growing corps of young people is looking for productive jobs. The national tourism plan forecasts the creation of upto 3.3 million jobs over the next 20 years, mostly in small and medium sized enterprises.

Trying to persuade some of the 4.5 million Saudis who go abroad every year to experience their own country is another major reason. Saudis have spent, indeed squandered, millions of dollars in casinos and department stores abroad. Efforts are being made to “thoroughly restructure” the Saudi school holiday system to allow more domestic travel. An education component about tourism is being set up so that a new generation of future investors in tourism can emerge.

Another reason is the need to persuade authorities not to destroy many old mosques and heritage sites which unfortunately has been occurring. “We have lost a lot of heritage,” the prince admits, noting that creating 38 tourism development areas and 175 designated tourist sites will allow protective regulations to be put in place.

Prince Sultan admits that there is a long way to go. “Tourism is a new word for us,” he says, noting that while the Saudis may be experts in handling pilgrims, they are “a bit disorganised” when handling regular visitors. The entire build-up to the tourism development plan involved the input of over 1,300 companies and people, including children. About 45 countries with well-developed tourism industries were also studied to absorb their best practises.

Over time, says the prince, Saudi Arabia envisages being transformed into a world class tourism country that will showcase its huge roster of Arab and Islamic heritage sites, arts, crafts, and an incredible amount of desert, mountain and urban culture. The national plan includes building an extra 50,000 hotel rooms over 10 years to add to the 95,000 already in the country. The industry will also need 74,000 more apartments over the next decade.

Administratively, tourism development will be overseen by the SCT which will comprise of 12 senior ministers from the council of ministers and seven other members from the business community. Lesser commissions will be established in each of the 13 regions. Within five years, these provincial administrators will be trained to manage their tourism industries and protect the tourism assets, including environment and culture.

Prince Sultan calls this “the intensive care period” that will decentralise management of the industry. “The private sector is the future of tourism in Saudi Arabia,” he says. “I am serious. We want to make it a genuinely community-based private sector industry.”



The First Saudi Tourism Forum will run from May 27 to May 29, 2003 at the Jeddah Hilton Hotel. Members of the tourism & hospitality industry, from both private & public sector organizations are invited to attend this event.

The Forum will consist of 26 working papers & two discussion groups. Specialized & experienced figures of the industry will present academic, non-promotional papers, addressing key issues facing the Saudi tourism industry. Case studies & best practice methods and statistics with some solutions proposed . An array of topics covering, Planning, Human Resources, Development & Strategy will be touched upon.

International case studies from other countries will also be presented to analyse the issues & considerations facing tourism development under best practice methods.

The Forum will be under the patronage of Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz, Second Deputy Premier, Minister of Defense and Aviation and General Inspector, Chairman of the Board, the Supreme Commission for Tourism.

The convention is open to all those directly or indirectly related to tourism or hospitality as a decision maker, senior executive or middle manager. An associated exhibition from tourism organizations will also be running alongside the forum. The enrolment fee is 500 Saudi riyals (about US$ 137) per delegate.


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