New projects for Saudi's US $89m tourism push

Visa issues still a hindrance say hoteliers

Travel, Saudi arabia, Saudi travel, Saudi visas

Saudi Arabia is making a major push to stimulate internal tourism, selling $89m worth of contracts to develop projects – including five museums – and enticing Saudis to travel to new locations within the country instead of to popular foreign destinations like Dubai and Europe.

But the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities won’t see a boost in foreign visitors until it relaxes its visa policies, the general manager of the Sheraton Riyadh Hotel and Towers said.

“A lot of the money is about stimulating internal tourism,” Stuart G Birkwood told Arabian Business. “It can be a challenge to get a visa to Saudi for regular tourism, as such I think a lot of the focus is on internal tourism and getting more people to travel within Saudi Arabia.

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“So yes, there’s a focus on ‘how can we drive [external] tourism’ – but a lot of the focus is ‘how can we maintain the current internal tourism levels and increase them, so that Saudis aren’t traveling abroad.’”

Instead of Dubai and London, he said, the SCTA would like to see them traveling to Abra and Riyadh.

This new financial push looks to “stimulate areas that aren’t generally used at the present time for tourism and to create tourism in areas like the Red Sea coast.”

The tourism market of the Arab world’s wealthiest economy is almost exclusively driven by religious visitors. The government, however, has unveiled plans to grow the industry in a bid to diversify its economy away from oil and create jobs for its youth.

The government last year said revenue from tourism would reach SR6bn ($17.6bn) in 2010, and was expected to hit almost SR118bn by 2015.

Ahmad Al-Shehri, SCTA’s director in charge of contracts and purchases, said the new museums will be located in the cities of Dammam, Asir, Tabuk and Baha – none of them globally-recognized tourist destinations.

Saudi Arabia’s most popular stops are the holy city of Makkah capital Riyadh and Jeddah. A portion of the funds will also be used to restore old sites like Tabuk Fort, built by the Turks in 1655 and sitting stop an ancient fortress, and the site of the Abar Hima ancient rocks, located in southern Najran.

Despite stringent visa laws – which hamper most solo female travelers and Westerners not on business travel – the kingdom has been making a push to put a stronger external tourism infrastructure .

The country hosted its first-ever meeting of foreign hotel managers last month at Riyadh’s Marriott.

There, the SCTA’s director general of licensing and quality, Ahmed Al Essa, said there was still “some debate about the usefulness of the tourism industry in the Kingdom… the state still doesn’t regard tourism as an industry as it doesn’t meet the requirements of an industry from the local point of view.”

In the last three years, the SCTA has worked to bring credibility to the tourism sector, partly by rolling out Saudi’s first hotel classification system.

“Before, there was no clear indication about what was a ‘3 star’ and what was a ‘5 star hotel,’ and the standards required,” Birkwood said.

“I you look at the foundation blocks, they’re doing the right thing in the right way.”

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