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Saudi Arabia Goes All Out To Strengthen Its Tourism Sector

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Countries the world over are promoting tourism opportunities.  And with cheaper travel and better communications than ever before, even Antarctica last year had five times the number of tourists it did just ten years ago.

Penguin habitats, forests, deserts and mountainous glaciers are high on the tourists’ wish list. Concrete jungles are not, with ecotourism becoming increasingly important, along with cultural and heritage tourism.

So the decision by Saudi Arabia eight years ago to promote its own tourism industry by removing obstacles, providing facilities and incentives to investors, preserving historic sites, and coordinating efforts amongst concerned authorities, was timely. It set up the Supreme Commission for Tourism (SCT) by Royal Decree, giving it the task of building and organising the tourism sector across the Kingdom.

Until very recently, the overriding numbers of tourists within Saudi Arabia were the Saudis themselves, closely followed by pilgrims coming to the birthplace of Islam to perform their religious duties at the two most important Islamic sites on earth – Makkah and Medina al Munawarrat. Foreign tourism was virtually unknown, except for the expatriate workers who came to live in Saudi Arabia; yet even just a few years ago no foreigners were allowed to travel more than about 50 kms from their workplace without special written permission.

Royal decree number nine of the Hijrah year 1421 stipulated that the SCT should concentrate on a number of key messages in promoting the Kingdom as a desirable place to spend a vacation. High on the list was the secure and safe environment enjoyed within the Kingdom, as was the hospitality and generosity of the Saudi people, its distinctive geographical location, the vastness and diversity of the country, the abundance of important archaeological and historical sites, its distinctive national cultural heritage, the availability of modern services, and the necessary infrastructure for a modern tourism industry.

Saudi Arabia has for some time been keen to move away from its reliance on oil as its main income earner. So as well as exploiting its natural abundance of minerals, it was felt that by developing tourism, a new channel for national income could be created with the support of private sector investment in various projects and programmes.

The Kingdom has a great deal to offer the intrepid traveller. From lush oases, imposing mountain regions, the underwater beauty of the Red Sea and the spectacular deserts that go to make up so much of its interior, along with a rich cultural heritage, it can truly be said to have something for everyone.

The SCT is taking its job seriously, having prepared, sponsored and supported a myriad of tourism events. In the first three months of this year, for instance, there’s the Jazan Winter Festival, the Hail international motor cross rally, Aviation Club events at Thumamah airport, spring festivals in Baha and Al-Jouf … and so on.

And in a further move aimed at strengthening the tourism sector, the SCT started in the middle of last year to issue group visas through tour operators for foreigners wishing to visit the Kingdom. The visas can be obtained for a maximum period of 60 days, but still special conditions apply, not least that tourists must come in groups of no fewer than five members, whilst the minimum age for women if they are not travelling with close relatives is 30.

At present, there are 18 licensed tour operators bringing foreigners to the country and when the first tourist ship, carrying 121 Germans, visited the Kingdom, representatives from the SCT, Foreign Ministry, Passport Department, Border Guards and the Saudi Ports Authority turned out to receive them on their arrival in Jeddah.

Interest has come from all quarters, even from as far away as Australia, where the likes of Intrepid Travel organised 15 day tours right across the country.

Probably the biggest obstacle, though, to modern day tourism within Saudi Arabia is the intensely conservative traditions of the Saudis themselves. With unmarried couples being arrested by the religious police and thrown into prison almost daily, simply for being seen together in a coffee bar or supermarket; in a country that bans cinema and dance halls; and in a country which bans women from driving, or even allowing women to travel without having the express permission of their male “guardians”, the tourism industry is likely to remain strictly regulated for the time being, with adventurous foreigners wanting to break away from organised parties to “do their own thing” being strongly discouraged.

Saudi Arabia’s tourism industry has come on in leaps and bounds in the past few years. But it still has a long way to go.

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