Could Dubai be usurped by Saudi Arabia as the Gulf’s foremost tourist destination? It is a reasonable conclusion to make following the announcement by Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, secretary general of the Supreme Commission for Tourism (SCT), of its Red Sea masterplan.
The SCT has identified 19 sites across the breadth of the west coast and its plans involve almost $40bn being pumped into the region.
Add the fact that this forms part of wider national plan that has identified 55 sites – out of a possible 956 across all 13 regions of Saudi Arabia – and it is clear Riyadh is serious about plans to build a major tourism industry in the kingdom.
Doubters will correctly point to the inevi-table conflict between more liberal Western attitudes and the strict, Wahabi branch of Islam that is practised in the kingdom.
Finding a way to bring these two cultures together without alienating either is one of the main challenges facing the SCT if it is serious in pursuing the international market in the future.
Riyadh says the overall economic benefit from implementing the first five years of the tourism programme will be SR2.4bn, and it will create 15,000 jobs. So the move to focus on the conversion of religious tourism into the stable market of fully-fledged leisure tourism makes sense.
Figures suggest that 51 per cent of all visitors to the kingdom in 2007 were on a religious visa. If it can tap into the 13 million annual domestic visitors to the Red Sea regions, then the kingdom need not concern itself too much with Western tourists, who will always be drawn to the bright lights of Dubai.