Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Saudi tourism: An important milestone

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.


shabeer s kunju said...

hi goodmorning...

your article highlights the interest in tourism as an industry in saudi arabia. but every industry has its pros and cons and it becomes evident only once it has flourished to a point irreversible. look at countries like bahrain, uae, syria, india etc. they are finding it difficult to cope with issues related to inflation, crime, sex, liquor etc.

i am an indian muslim living in the eastern province for the past 25 years i.e. since childhood days.

i have enjoyed the peacefulness and burdenless life of saudi arabia.
i would say this is one thing no other country can provide to its residents i.e. whether expats or citizens.

we have lesser traffic jams, lower rents, good jobs, excellent security for

women and children

take a look at uae and bahrain....

why do bachelors keep going to bahrain daily/weekly through the causeway
what thing is available in bahrain that is not available in saudi arabia.
if we put our thoughts deeply into the matter, it is evident that personal freedom is the culprit or rather blessing in disguise for small states like bahrain.
uae and bahrain support everything that is prohibited in islam. i hope i dont need to mention in detail, but tourism flourishes only when people are provided with things that are prohibited at their homes.

i feel sad when i see huge rush in the causeway and know that it is saudi guys who waste their hard earned money in a single day in bahrain on drinks and sex. i have heard stories of saudi guys begging for money to pay the causeway toll on returning to saudi.

isnt it disheartening to see satan succeed in the land of allah?

if tourism is allowed to is certain that we will have to compromise on some issues like
1. tourist visa procedures and norms should be eased - leading to rise in illegal immigrant population
2. loss of islamic identity to some extent like uae and bahrain
3. rise in prices of goods and services, rents etc
4. terrorism targeting foreigners - especially westerners
5. theft and crime by people who cannot find a job even after huge economic boom resulting from various developments in retail, hospitality, medicine, tourism etc.

the gains from tourism are:
1. foreign exchange revenue of billions of riyals
2. better cultural and historical understanding of islam and projection of islam in its true color to the outside world
3. better understanding of others' culture and tradition by saudi arabian citizens
4. more quality jobs for saudi men and women alike.

in my opinion, the people of saudi arabia and all muslims residing in this country should work towards propagating islamic tourism.

a national tour of mosques, historical sites and museums should be developed and projected as a theme.

there are several ideas to project islamic tourism.

we should aim at bringing in more non-muslims for such tours so that they learn what islam is truely and change their present perceptions about islam as a terrorist religion.

in the wake of terrorist attacks on hotels in pakistan and india recently, the kingdom should take a strict stance against defacing islam and muslims.

all said and done for the goodness of people of saudi arabia.

thanks & regards,
shabeer s k, mba

Average Joe Body Builder said...

salaam alaikum,
In my opinion there should be tourism as quickly as possible but i think the tourism should concentrate on the strongest and most fit of people. I like to see more hill climbing mountain climbing, desert treks, wind surfing, sailing, as well as cave exploration. There is a lot of natural beauty that can be admired by those who value ecotourism.

Ecotourism is also in line with islam as well. I cant remember the quranic verse where we admire allah's creation. I would not totally agree with islamic tourism if it is done in an in your face manner. For example there are already lot of people in ksa who want to learn arabic, but they simply are not willling to go to the irshad centers to learn it. If ksa wants to show the world how nice a place it is to visit, they will need to change and make compromises for the benfit of the nonsaudis. They have done a great deal of compromising in that regard, and thnat is admirable.

In regard to expanding tourism, what bothered me is that this job creation scenario calls for more foreigners to come into the country. Whynot for once NOT have foreigners come, and reserve each and every job to saudis just at least to see what happens?

Foxxi said...

@Shabeer S Kunju

Despite the "danger" you fear to the religious nature of your country (and as I stated in comments before, I'm not really willing to discuss this) KSA has a big chance of establishing some sort of "gentle" tourism by specializing in families (resorts on the red sea) and for people who are interested in culture and history (Mada'in Saleh e.g.).

When I was working in KSA, I was also visiting Oman as a tourist and besides the fact that I instantly fell in love with this country, that kind of tourism there could be a model for KSA.

Don't try to make big bucks on people with no taste and small wallets, try to attract sophisticated tourists. And once again, talking about your precious coastline at the red sea, this is perfect for families with children. And don't worry they're not out for sex and drugs ... but maybe allow rock'n roll and get rid of the abaya for non-muslim women ;-)

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