Established in 2000, the Supreme Commission for Tourism was tasked with developing tourism infrastructure and implementing a comprehensive tourism strategy. In March 2004, the Council of Ministers approved a 20-year strategic tourism development plan.
“People see tourism as just people travelling to another country and having a good time, while the Supreme Commission is trying to establish an industry,” says Abdullah al-Jehani, deputy secretary-general for marketing and media at the commission.
Three years into the plan, launched in January 2005, the commission says it is focusing on developing the domestic tourism market. “Logic says the market is here, so why go find another market?” says Majed al-Sheddi, general director of the public relations department at the commission. “About 85-90 per cent of our efforts go to the local market. When I say the local market, I am not distinguishing the Saudis from the non-Saudis. I am talking about the people who happen to be in Saudi Arabia. We have 6 million expatriates here”.
The domestic market also includes GCC citizens, who do not require visas.
“We are examining our readiness to receive people,” says Al-Sheddi. “We now have a number of good tour operators, but we need to make sure we have enough good tour operators to help and assist all international visitors. We do not want to be attracting people to come and then when they come they might not find enough services for them.”
But there is more to it than that. Saudi Arabia does not want to become a tourism hotspot. It wants to retain control over who enters the country and what visitors do once they are there. The rigid visa procedure it has put in place is an effective way of vetting potential visitors.
Tourists must come in groups of at least four and must fly Saudi Arabia Airlines. Once they arrive, they are accompanied by police patrol cars when travelling around the country. This measure was put in place to make sure assistance is available in case of an emergency, say the Saudis.
The conservative nature of the country also acts as a deterrent, but the Saudis are not concerned. Tourism may help diversify the economy and create much-needed job opportunities - up to 1.5 million by the end of the 20-year plan. But preserving the country's culture comes first.
“The country has its own flavour,” says Al-Sheddi. “We will never change the flavour just to suit somebody, to suit the crowds of people. Otherwise we will become like any other place. People like to come to a place which respects its culture.”
So instead of targeting the masses, Saudi Arabia wants to attract special interest groups, namely those looking for diving and climbing opportunities or cultural guided tours. They have already started to arrive.
Ahmed Mostafa, managing director of local tour operator Sadd al-Samallaghi, says his company has catered to 12 foreign groups in the past month. “We have 80 per cent of the market of foreign tourists,” says Mostafa.
Local tour operators will arrange visas for foreign groups, organise their itinerary and provide guides. Prices vary depending on the size of the group. Four people staying at five-star hotels full-board will pay $3,500-4,000 each, plus flights, says Mostafa. For 10 people, the price drops to $2,500 a person, and to $1,500 for a group of 20 people.
So who will come to Saudi Arabia? “People who have done Europe and South East Asia, who have travelled extensively and are looking for a new adventure,” says Sandra Veness of Middle East Tours (Australia).
Tourists who make it to the country are invariably impressed. “I can recommend this country and it is going to be number one on my list,” says Veness.
Saudi Arabia will never become a mass tourist destination, but the potential for specialised travel is huge.
When it decides it is ready to welcome more foreign visitors, it will have to focus on marketing and simplify the bureaucracy involved when travelling to the kingdom.