LAST September I wrote about the modest advances that the Saudi General Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (GCTA) has been making in order to create a better climate for foreigners to visit Saudi Arabia.
I don’t anticipate that it will be easy for a lot of Westerners who may become impatient with our famous, or infamous, governmental red tape when it comes to issuing visas to visitors, but I certainly applaud those hearty people who have the patience and will to make the trip.
That’s why I was so glad to hear that 38 American tourists visited Tabuk last week by way of Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt. They visited the ancient sites in the region and had a look at the old Hijaz Railway and the historic Tabuk fortress.
The Saudi Gazette reported that it was only one trip of a scheduled 68 visits expected to Saudi Arabia from the United States and Europe.The trip marks an important milestone in Saudi history as Saudi Arabia moves from a closed society to one that is embracing its international standing.
For those of us who have been following the GCTA, we looked on skeptically as the Commission began exploring tourism options shortly after 9/11.I don’t think many of us in the news media seriously considered that foreigners would be allowed to visit our historic sites in large numbers.
And I also recall many of my friends and colleagues who said they would be quite happy if our borders remained closed and Saudi Arabia was left to the Saudis.But time has a way of changing our perspective on things, and most of the skeptics have turned into optimists in recent years.
Terrorism in Saudi Arabia and around the world has certainly changed our attitudes about living in an insular world. Showcasing all that Saudi Arabia has to offer and learning about other nationalities is perhaps the best way to bridge cultural and religious gaps.But from a more practical standpoint, opening the country to foreign tourists is a smart economic move.
Just recently it has been announced that 24 new tourism projects are being launched that will bring big business to regions not typically known as tourist destinations.About SR150 billion has been set aside for a string of resorts along the Red Sea. Ras Muhaisen in the Makkah province, Ras Humaid Sharma, Dhaffat Al-Wajh and Qayyal in Tabuk, Haridha in Asir and Arrayes in Yanbu will be sites for new resorts.
Tourism centers are now planned throughout the western region, including Asir, Jizan and Najran. Construction projects are planned for heritage buildings and museums.This will serve two purposes. It will bring much needed foreign tourist dollars to these areas, creating jobs for more Saudis than probably any other industry in the country.
The projects also anticipate another huge influx of foreign workers to Saudi Arabia. Despite the current economic slowdown, plans for the country’s six economic cities and the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology are continuing on schedule. These cities and the university will bring thousands of workers. KAUST, in particular, will see large numbers of Westerners live and work in the region.
Their appetites for entertainment and visiting cultural and historic sites will far exceed what Saudi Arabia has to offer now.Already tourism is now the fastest growing industry here and tourism training has taken place with fresh graduates ready to serve the Commission.The benefits of this new growth industry are limitless.
Economically depressed areas will be revitalized with jobs and a healthy economy while we are given the opportunity to present the unseen face of Saudi Arabia.I’m not so blind as to believe that opening the country to foreign tourists will occur without problems. Western culture and Islam have always struggled to find common ground.
The United Arab Emirates, for example, continually works to find a balance between accommodating foreign tourists and maintaining its cultural and religious identity.Saudi Arabia, of course on a more restrictive and different level, must contend with these issues as well if foreigners are permitted to visit in greater numbers.But overall, the visit to Tabuk by a few dozen Americans is a promising sign that there are alternatives for ensuring economic prosperity for the future.