Over a period of 20 years up to 60,000 jobs could be generated within an expanded tourism sector.
This would cater not just for pilgrimage visitors, but also the meetings and conferences market in the Middle East’s richest and fastest growing economy.
Plans for Saudi Arabia’s first large-scale dedicated tourism development to be located in the Gulf coast area of Al-Auqair, south of Dammam, are already at an advanced stage.
These could lead to $10bn of investment in the 100sqkm area which includes 15 kilometres of coastline.
Saudi Arabia’s Supreme Commission for Tourism (SCT) has also unveiled plans which would see private sector developers invest $40bn over the next 20 years, building major resorts in the Kingdom’s west coast region.
Quite apart from its two holy cities and its role as a centre of Islamic pilgrimage, the kingdom has considerable scope for drawing additional visitors.
It has spectacular desert and mountain scenery as well as historic sites such as the Madain Saleh, which ranks alongside Petra as a Unesco world heritage site.
Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast is attracting most attention, stretching 1,840km from Jordan to Yemen with unspoiled reefs and offering some of the finest coral diving in the world.
The first major development at Al-Rayis near Yanbu in the Medina region could be launched by the end of this year.
Resorts at Fursan in the Farasan Islands in Jizan province, at Haridha in Asir province, as well as at Ras Humaid, Sharma, Qayyal and Dhaffat Al Wajh in the Tabuk region, are also planned.
However, the bold plan is aimed less at positioning the kingdom on the international tourism map than drawing on the country’s existing 6 million pilgrimage visitors to extend their stays in the kingdom and to encourage more Saudis to vacation at home rather than abroad.
Promotion is focusing on highlighting vacations in Saudi Arabia to Muslim visitors once they have completed their pilgrimages.
As a result, pilgrimage service providers are to be licensed as into tour operators later this year.
Since mass market tourism is not the aim, SCT governor Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz believes that achieving an annual 5% growth in tourism is achievable since domestic tourism alone is sufficient to fuel the development.
The challenge lies in developing human resources as well as infrastructure.
Conservative local communities will also need help in developing a welcoming attitude to visitors and changing outside perceptions of the kingdom as a destination that lacks appeal.
The strategy has high-powered leadership from Prince Sultan, who became the kingdom’s first astronaut when he rode the US space shuttle in 1985.
“We are now in the process of building an industry from the bottom to the top, in terms of setting out regulations, training a national cadre and preparing citizens to welcome tourists,” he says.
Sunday, June 29- 2008 @ 12:41 UAE local time (GMT+4) Replication or redistribution in whole or in part is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Mediaquest FZ LLC.