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Tue 6 May 2008 01:32 AM

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Saudi 'not yet ready to open up'

But importance now placed on tourism in kingdom has led to restructure of industry, official says.

Saudi Arabia is not ready to open up totally to visitors, despite welcoming its first cruise passengers to Jeddah last month, a tourism official said on Monday.

“Realistically, we are just at the start of the creation of the service side of tourism, as well as infrastructure, and we want to be in good shape first,” Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) Secretary General Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud said at the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference (AHIC) in Dubai.

The importance now placed on tourism in the kingdom has led to a restructure of the industry, Prince Sultan told CNN’s John Defterios, with him as head of the commission now reporting directly to King Abdullah.

The commission will take responsibility for three new sectors, as well as the development of three more and would be dealing with antiquities and museums, including exploration, accommodation, travel agents, tour operators and tourism masterplans, Prince Sultan said.

Its first major challenge is to attract the domestic audience, five million of whom travel overseas each year, he continued.

Domestic tourism is predicted to soar to 73.3 billion riyals ($19.5 billion) in 2010 and 101.3 billion riyals in 2020, according to a recent report by the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (Sama).

Measures are in place to streamline annual vacations to give people more shorter holidays, Prince Sultan said, adding that the commission was looking to provide seed capital to event organisers to create MICE attractions in the kingdom in a bid to drive demand.

Other recent developments include the classification of hotels, which has already begun in Mecca and Medina, with a major study underway to research the possible expansion of a heritage inn chain similar to the parador system in Spain.

A Red Sea tourism masterplan was also in place, Prince Sultan said, while in other developments measures were being taken to meet the challenge of Saudisation in the travel and tourism sector.

“We have three colleges planned and three or four more to come, partnering with major operators such as Accor,” he said.

Initiatives supporting the expansion include four new airports, plus the construction of gateway airport cities, starting with Jeddah, which would include accommodation, exhibition and conference facilities to target the meetings sector.

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