Getting even Saudis to stay: can the Kingdom brand itself as a premier tourist destination?

Published October 27th, 2014 - 04:47 GMT
Domestic tourism has grown significantly of late, spending in this sector soaring from SR59 billion in 2010 to SR103 billion in 2014.
Domestic tourism has grown significantly of late, spending in this sector soaring from SR59 billion in 2010 to SR103 billion in 2014.

According to a study made by Frost & Sullivan, a global growth consulting firm, an average Saudi tourist spends SR43,000 on his foreign trips. An estimated 6 to 7 million Saudis leave the Kingdom every year to vacation abroad. With a little imagination and some hard work, a major part of this money could be diverted back to the local economy and this is what the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) has been trying to do by encouraging Saudis to see more of their own country.

SCTA President Prince Sultan Bin Salman thinks that by making local destinations more accessible and attractive, more of those vacationing Saudis can be persuaded to stay home for the holidays.

His efforts in this direction are bearing fruit. The number of domestic trips exceeded 25 million in 2013, an increase of 6 percent over the previous year. There has been an increase of 4.8 million in the number of domestic tourists between 2012 and 2013 as a result of investments in the country's tourism infrastructure, according to a report from the SCTA. 

Domestic tourism has grown significantly of late, spending in this sector soaring from SR59 billion in 2010 to SR103 billion in 2014. This is expected to help diversify an economy heavily weighted in favor of oil. It will create service-sector jobs for a swelling youth population that can no longer look to the government as the sole job provider. And, Sultan hopes, it will help Saudis to fall in love anew with their homeland.

In fact, Saudi Arabia has everything to win the hearts of even the most discriminating foreign traveler. Among them are a vast array of artifacts and monuments of Arab/Islamic heritage, the coastline, mountains and a fantastic and unique desert as well as monuments dating back to the pre-Islamic era such as Mada’in Saleh, the UNESCO World Heritage site, and Al-`Ula, said to be one of Middle East’s most impressive ghost towns.

Then there are the turquoise waters of the Red Sea, the Asir National Park, an abode of over 300 species of birds, and the captivating beauty of the Empty Quarter.

Just outside of Riyadh, laborers are working to restore Saudi Arabia’s first capital, the vast mud-brick city of Addiriyah, founded in 1740 by the first King Saud. The site will house five museums, a heritage hotel, a handicraft market and a sound-and-light show.

SCTA is promoting not merely such historic sites. Natural tourist spots of scenic beauty are also receiving attention. The commission is investing heavily in cultural festivals such as the Jenadriyah Festival, held near the city of Riyadh every year. Simultaneously, it is also working with the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) to increase the number of flights to different domestic destinations, as well as upgrading the facilities at various domestic airports.

The government has drafted a plan to invest over $30 billion in upgrading the country’s airports by 2020, with $5 billion dedicated solely to the development of domestic airports. Parallel to this, investments in the hotel and hotel apartment sectors are increasing. More than SR95 billion is expected to be spent over the next 10 years.

By 2015, the Kingdom will provide an estimated 381,000 new hotel rooms. Plans and projects worth SR6 billion are under way to increase the capacity of apartment hotels in line with the government’s plan to promote tourism investments and thus attract a significant number of investors to a promising industry.

Though the number of domestic tourists has been increasing steadily, more needs to be done to make the growth commensurate with the effort and money invested in this sector. Travel agencies need to provide attractive tourist packages with reasonable prices to those who want to spend their vacations in tourist spots.

Saudi Arabia’s 28 million population is the largest in GCC. This means that domestic tourism has a huge home market to tap. But calls to patriotism alone will not persuade Saudis to prefer Mada’in Saleh to St. Moritz, the Swiss resort town.

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