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Thu 7 Oct 2010 06:16 PM

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Saudi Arabia opens its doors to pilgrim tourists

Sunshine all year round, a medley of multicolored coral reefs beyond its sandy shores and the remains of an ancient desert city make an enticing tourist destination

Saudi Arabia opens its doors to pilgrim tourists
Growth potential: Religious tourism currently accounts for 43 percent of Saudi Arabia’s tourism market

Home
to Islam's holiest cities of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia regards itself as
the guardian of Islam and is often closed off to foreigners. Even though it
receives more than five million Muslim pilgrims a year, they are not allowed to
travel within the country.

Tourist visas are rarely issued
and come with many restrictions but this is due to change as Saudi Arabia
adopts a new strategy to tap into a niche market of conservative tourism.

"It is about the kind of
people that come to Saudi Arabia. It is an Islamic country that is home to
Islam's holiest sites so most people who come here come for Umra and Hajj [pilgrimage],"
said Abdulla al-Jehani, an official at the Saudi Commission for tourism and
Antiquities.

For the past six years the
tourism authorities focused their efforts on attracting more locals and Gulf
nationals, who are allowed entry to Saudi Arabia without a visa.

"We are working on a new
programme... called "Umra Plus," which means "Umra Plus
tourism,"" Jehani said, adding that visiting pilgrims will be allowed
to extend their stay in the kingdom to visit certain areas that were previously
inaccessible to them.

With sites such as the ancient
Nabatean city in Madaen Saleh; a 300-year old village of Rijal Alma; and the
remains of a famous railway linking the Levant with the holy city of Medina,
Saudi Arabia has a lot to offer.

The leading oil exporter says it
hopes to raise its tourism contribution to non-oil GDP to 11 percent within the
next 20 years from its current 6.5 percent as it seeks to diversify away from
oil and provide jobs for its 18 million local population.

Perched on the edge of one of
Saudi Arabia's mountain's in the Western region, 1,800 kilometers above sea
level, the Taif water park resort has become a hub for conservative Gulf
tourists who want to have a little fun in the sun while still adhering to their
religious principles.

Wearing "Islamic"
swimming trunks that cover the area from his belly button to his shins, Mishaal
al-Azmi and his family merge well with their surroundings at the water park
resort. His wife, clad in black and veiled, sits by his side.

"Abroad they bother us. They
look at us with discrimination ...because of our Islamic dress. Here we feel
like we are free, no one bothers us. Everyone has the same values and
traditions," he said.

Taif, along with other
mountaintop destinations in Saudi Arabia, have become alluring summer hot spots
for conservative families from the Gulf who are looking to enjoy a holiday in
keeping with Islamic values and traditions.

Men
must dress modestly and women cover their figures with a loose black garment,
called the abaya, while restaurants segregate single men and families into
separate sections.

"Saudi Arabia is a conservative country that has
its values and principles, making it different than other places, and that may
attract some people," Jehani said.

"Among the principles for the tourism vision for
Saudi Arabia is that the country is and will remain conservative, having its
own values and principles, and no one will change that," he added.

Many Saudis choose to travel abroad for a change of
scenery and cooler weather, but nearly 1.4 million residents of other Gulf
countries visit the kingdom during summer, Jehani said.

One Kuwaiti woman, shopping for herbs in an Al Taif
bazaar, said she felt safe in Saudi Arabia, free from what she considered
vulgar images seen when travelling abroad.

In order for Saudi Arabia to expand its tourism
industry as it aims to capitalize on pilgrim visitors it must first attract
investors to build more hotels and facilities which tend to be overcrowded
during peak summer times.

Tourism's development is hampered, however, by lack of
interest among investors worried about weak returns, causing a shortage of
hotels and other facilities.

"We do not find ourselves in a position to reach
out more in terms of leisure tourism. We are not yet ready because of the
standard of the industry in terms of the services, the ease of transport
between cities in the kingdom. This all needs improvement," Jehani said.

Even though Taif is one of the most popular summer
destinations in the country, it only has 24 hotels and 450 serviced apartments
while it receives about two million tourists a year, said Ahmad Aljuaid, a
local tour guide.

Investors' main concern is also to have a steady
stream of tourist all year long, not just in the summer when more people pour
into the country, said Abdulhamid al-Amry, member of the Saudi Economic Association.

Prices of lodging more than double during the summer
and some hotels are only open for a few months a year.

Jehani believes that the "Umra Plus"
program will be one solution that will help increase demand for tourism
throughout the year, and contribute to eliminating the seasonality problem.

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Fred Lomax 9 years ago

I feel that Saudi Arabia could also be a major tourist destination for non-Muslims as well, so long as they adhere to the country's Islamic and conservative principals and do not enter areas that are only allowed for Muslims. Not all foreigners want to drink and party when they vacation. Some want a place where they can spend quality family time and I think the country could accomodate them while at the same time providing jobs and other economic opportunities. Maybe the family-oriented, conservative atmosphere of the Kingdom will rub off on them and they, in turn, will adopt a more conservative way of life or even Islam, itself!

Naveed Bashir 9 years ago

Very well put Fred, I think Saudi Arabia could certainly accomodate non-Muslims as tourists and visitors. In turn showing their excellent manners and accomodating way of life which in turn help people to reflect not just on their vacation but on their life as a whole.