There’s more good news from the Saudi Arabian tourism industry. Revenue was expected this year to jump 4.76 percent over 2009 for a total of SR 66 billion.
Salah Al-Bakhit, the deputy chairman of Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), told the Saudi Press Agency earlier this week that “by the year 2015 (tourism) revenue would reach SR118 billion and by 2020 it would jump further to SR232 billion.”
Also consider the SCTA’s announcement that jobs created by investments in tourism has increased 7.4 percent, or from 333,125 jobs in 2000 to 457,658 in 2009. I suspect that much of this growth, which is not terribly large over nearly a decade, occurred in the last couple of years as the SCTA increased its efforts to promote Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination and improved access to various sites.
Support services, such as restaurants, at tourist destinations also saw a significant rise in revenue with a 9 percent uptick, or a total of SR 36 billion expected this year.
So what are Saudi Arabia’s hot spots? Madain Saleh is popular with non-Muslims. Madain Saleh was named in 2008 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and continues to undergo excavation in a cooperative effort between the SCTA and the National French Research Center. The Grand Mosque in Makkah and Prophet’s Mosque in Madinah for pilgrims remains Saudi Arabia’s centerpieces of tourism. Asir, Najran and Jizan are beginning to attract new visitors. At least SR 150 billion has been earmarked for the construction of resorts along the Red Sea coast. Ras Muhaisen in the Makkah province, Dhaffat Al-Wajh, Ras Humaid Sharma and Qayyal in Tabuk, Arrayes in Yanbu and Haridha in Asir all have resorts under construction or have projects planned.
A project to develop the old Okaz Souq in Taif also is on the horizon.
It seems that the SCTA has proven the skeptics wrong and has exceeded their own expectations in tourism growth. With an unprecedented number of tourism projects underway, SCTA chief Prince Sultan Bin Salman is turning his attention to domestic travel issues. Citing that 80 percent of the Saudis use domestic highways to reach their destinations, a Saudi Automotive Services Company (SASCO) service station project has been launched.
“To promote domestic tourism we have to provide the best services to the local citizens, residents and tourists who make use of our trunk roads,” Prince Sultan told Saudi reporters at a press conference recently. He said the project is aimed to allow service stations to be more attractive for travelers.
The SCTA plans to add 20 SASCO service stations by next year for a total of 83 facilities. These services stations will include shopping centers, food courts and lodging. But it will take more than additional service stations to increase domestic travel on Saudi Arabia’s highways. What the SCTA hasn’t mentioned about their project is the fact that current highway service stations are notorious for their filthy conditions in restrooms and wash areas and less than adequate service at sales counters. I think that a filthy petrol station restroom and rude service staff will make more of an impression on a foreign visitor than any tourist site. If the Ministry of Transport can get on board with the SCTA and refurbish rest areas and service stations and train staff, then domestic travel will further increase
Also not addressed by the SCTA are the chronic problems of lack of public transportation in urban areas. While railways are planned for inter-city travel, public bus transportation remains substandard in general and non-existent for women in particular. Once tourists arrive at a destination, rental cars and taxis should not be the only transportation option for families.
Ultimately, the transportation problems will be solved given the giant strides the SCTA has made in the past two years. That’s promising for domestic tourism. Now if the SCTA can begin focusing on bringing more foreign tourists to Saudi Arabia, then we can see some further revenue increases.