Holidaying in the Kingdom

Features

Holidaying in the Kingdom

posted on August 2011

Saudi Arabia is trying to boost domestic tourism, but persuading Saudis to holiday at home is not proving easy


With its strict visa policies and rigid religious conservatism Saudi Arabia may not seem like a typical getaway destination. However the Saudi government has set itself the ambitious target of attracting over 88 million visitors by 2020 and creating 900,000 new jobs in the hospitality sector.
Plans to develop Saudi Arabia as a holiday destination are not new. Several years ago the country’s Supreme Commission for Tourism (SCT) unveiled a strategy which included attracting $40 billion-worth of investment over the next 20 years, including the building of a number of major resorts on the Kingdom’s west coast. The goal is to help diversify the economy and provide jobs for Saudi nationals.
However, government expenditure has focused primarily on developing religious tourism and business travel.
Saudi Arabia already receives millions of religious tourists every year, who visit Mecca and Madina for Hajj and Umrah. Over four million foreign pilgrims will fly into Jeddah in 2011 alone for Umrah, according to Saudi’s Ministry of Haj.
“The number of pilgrims coming for Umrah this year will be 700,000 more than last year’s figure,” Saudi’s Haj Minister Fouad al Farsy said earlier this year.
According to a report issued by National Commercial Bank (NCB), the country will earn SR80 billion ($21.3 billion) from international travellers by 2015. However, much of that will come from religious rather than mass tourism.
“The largest share of inbound tourism is religious tourism as people from across the world visit Makkah and Madina to perform Haj and Umrah. During 2009, religious tourism trips accounted for 47.1 per cent of all trips to the kingdom,” says NCB.
Business Monitor International, a business intelligence provider, put inbound tourist arrivals to the country in 2010 at 12.9 million. An average 6.7 per cent year-on-year growth in inbound tourism is forecasted until 2014, when there will be an estimated 16.7 million inbound tourist arrivals to Saudi Arabia. The majority of those travellers will be pilgrims or business executives.
While the country is relaxing visa rules for religious tourism (the number of Umrah visas for Ramadan issued in 2010 was, for example, up 16 per cent to 911,000), conventional tourism is a different matter. While 40,000 tourists visited Jordan’s Petra this February, there are no recorded visitor statistics for Petra’s sister city Madain Saleh, located five hundred kilometres north west of Madina, during the same period.
Despite the kingdom’s numerous attractions, including almost two thousand kilometres of pristine Red Sea coast, the Saudi government is not trying to entice foreign visitors or develop mass tourism. Instead, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities wants to persuade Saudis used to flying abroad for their summers to spend their time at home and explore the country.
The Saudi government is committed to capturing more of the capital spent by the eight million Saudi residents who travel abroad each year. The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities forecasts that domestic tourism will grow to a staggering 128 million internal trips and 640 million nights by 2019.
The only difficulty the Saudi government may face in achieving this goal is encouraging Saudis to stay home. Ask any Saudi national as to where he or she would like to spend their summer and they’ll reel off a list of six star getaways: Kuala Lumpur; Cairo; Marrakesh; Istanbul; Dubai, or Beirut. Few will name Riyadh, Jeddah or Al-Khobar as a place where they’d like to idle away two weeks.
“I always spend my time in Morocco when I have the chance,” a government official told The Gulf. “I sometimes travel to Jeddah and Jizan but this is to visit family rather than a vacation.”
The opportunities and challenges of persuading Saudis to vacation in the kingdom is reflected in statistics from MAS, Saudi Arabia’s Tourism Information and Research Centre. Domestic tourism fell 28 per cent last year to 23.9 million trips from 33.5 million in 2009. In contrast, outbound tourism increased 17 per cent last year, with 7.55 million Saudis travelling abroad in 2010. Domestic tourism spending reached $8.35 billion during 2010, and the average daily spend per tourist touched SR268, up from SR168 in 2009.
The reasoning for most Saudi nationals to vacation abroad is simple. Despite the breathtaking beauty of sites such as  Madain Saleh and Qaryat al-Fau, an oasis stop for caravans on the ancient spice route, Saudi families prefer to enjoy what they cannot find at home, such as cinemas, outdoor activities, cool weather and other attractions.
“Saudis are not curious about exploring their homeland,” Luay Kanetah, a board member of the Taif Chamber for Commerce and Industry and a member of the Supreme Commission for Tourism and Antiquities said last year. “Even if there are people interested in local tourism, they will encounter obstacles such as weak organisation, a lack of travel guides, high prices, poor restaurants, among many other things.”
Saudi authorities admit that the country’s infrastructure is hampering home-grown tourism. In June, the head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz explained that while local tourism demand is rising there is still a lack of proper services which meet “the aspirations and requirements of citizens.”
Poor and non-existent services, especially related to transportation and road services are the biggest challenge for domestic tourism, he said.
The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities is also trying to tackle the issue of quality among Saudi-based tour operators and facilities through the introduction of grading systems. Several hundred hotels were graded last year as part of a plan to provide a clear, transparent benchmark for hotels and furnished accommodation across the kingdom.
One issue which the Commission can do little about, however, is the cost of vacationing in Saudi Arabia. A hotel booking in Jeddah and Mecca can cost from SR2,000 per person per week to in excess of SR6,000 for a five star resort. Hotel prices in and around the holy cities jump during vacation periods such as Ramadan and Eid. In contrast, a package tour to Malaysia or Egypt would cost around SR5,000 per person. When there is constant demand from religious pilgrims or business travelers (hotel occupancy in Riyadh during weekdays is often 90 to 100 per cent, for example) there is little incentive for hotel operators to lower their prices.
“Most Saudis still aren’t interested in touring locally,” explained an employee at one local travel agency. “The costs are too high and they’re only interested in going to places like Mecca, Madina or Abha and Taif. Often when they do travel they’ll go and stay with family or ask only for a hotel booking. Travel abroad is much cheaper for them.”
Still, the Saudi government remains optimistic that they will be able to rapidly grow domestic tourism. The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities’ Prince Sultan has predicted there would be a 27.5 per cent increase in local tourism over the summer.
Much of this growth will be due to the success of the country’s summer festivals. The events, which cater to all ages and provide visitors with both entertainment and cultural activities, have proved so popular that festivals are being extended to include this year’s Ramadan and Eid. The Jeddah 2011 festival, which will be held until the beginning of September, is expected to attract four million visitors. Associated revenues are estimated to rise by 50 per cent.
Still, efforts to promote internal tourism through festivals and other related events have also fallen foul of the country’s religious conservatives who oppose mixing of the sexes as well as music concerts, cinemas, and circus performances which they consider to be un-Islamic.
“These acts contradict the faith and must not be done, taught, spread or encouraged,” a spokesman for Saudi’s religious police told Saudi’s Arabic daily Al-Watan last year. “They must be fought and those performing them must be reported and punished so as to be deterred and their evil restricted,” he said.
Religious opposition led to the cancelling of Jeddah’s summer film festival in 2009 despite the support of local governor Prince Khaled al Faisal. Music concerts arranged as part of the 2009 tourism festival for the city of Abha were also banned due to religious objections.
While the kingdom’s fledgling tourism sector is still finding its feet there’s no doubt that the government-backed sector will rapidly develop. The number of religious tourists will continue to grow.
Similarly, the increasing number of local attractions and events will draw Saudi nationals looking for entertainment on their doorsteps provided that the religious authorities do not continue to raise objections. In the short to medium term the chances of the kingdom opening itself up to conventional tourism are less likely however.
Tourism in the kingdom has a “promising future” but that in terms of organisation the industry is still in its initial stages, explains Abdullah al Juhani, vice president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities.
“Tourism contributes 3.2 per cent of the gross domestic product, and we hope that it will rise to nine per cent,” he says.
“We are on the first steps of the path, and we have to give it (tourism) a chance.” <
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