Saudi Arabia’s nascent tourism industry received a significant boost this week following the announcement that the Supreme Economic Council has approved plans for its Red Sea tourism masterplan.

The masterplan has identified 19 sites along the length of the west coast, from Jordan in the North to Yemen, which will be prioritised for development. With an average investment at each site of $2bn, the masterplan reflects a potential $38bn invested in the kingdom’s Red Sea area alone over the next few decades.

The expectation is that by the end of 2008, a major development at one of the sites, probably Medina, will be launched and a new coastal resort will be built. It is a clear signal that the kingdom is keen to capitalise on the multitude of people who are visiting Saudi Arabia as religious tourists.

With a national tourism masterplan apparently drawn up, of which the Red Sea masterplan is one component, there clearly is a shift in stance in Riyadh towards tourism.

This is unsurprising. The kingdom is blessed with vast natural attractions, including the longest coastline on the Red Sea.

Figures suggest that 5 million Saudis visit the UAE every year, a market estimated to be worth in the region of $15bn. That is a figure Riyadh would clearly like to retain in the local economy.

At the same time, a burgeoning tourism industry would undoubtedly act as a major stimulus to employment in the kingdom.

However, those who see Saudi Arabia vying with Dubai for the Gulf’s tourist crown will have a long time to wait.

There is no suggestion yet that the kingdom is culturally or socially ready to accept tourism on a mass scale, and the consequence is that the local market is where Riyadh will focus its attention for some time to come.