Saudi Arabia sees tourism masterplan run aground

With Hajj nearing, are visitors ready to change religious pilgrimage into tourism?

  • E-Mail
By  John Irish Published  January 4, 2004

Last March, the man behind Saudi Arabia’s tourism revolution, HH Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, seemed to be unstoppable. If Prince Sultan could be the first Arab to reach the moon, then why could Saudi Arabia not increase the number of visitors to the Kingdom from the current 20 million to 44 million by 2018? While not expecting Westerners to rush to the gates of Mecca, there was a hope that Arabs, Saudis and pilgrims would steadily visit in increasing numbers. However, with the start of Hajj due in February, Saudi Arabia’s new born Tourism Commission already looks more antiquated than many of the sites it promotes. The web site looks increasingly in need of an update, while reaching the commission by phone has become as difficult as getting tourist visas to enter the Kingdom’s borders. Throw into the lot several high profile terrorist attacks, rising insurgency and a general state of confusion and you’re not left with much to appeal to tourists, beyond performing the Hajj and Umrah. A major part of Prince Sultan’s plan was linked to that. Through initiatives like the Umrah Plus, Muslim visitors could take in Saudi’s other sites and sounds. “We think that the Umrah Plus will be a great value to Saudi Arabia,” Prince Sultan told Arabian Business in May. “It’s going to be tourism that is focussed, cultural, and natural, so they can enjoy the country.” However, it seems that along with the recent unrest, Muslims outside the Arab world are finding little comfort in travelling to Saudi. Asgar, a British Muslim, who recently went to Saudi Arabia for Umrah, was quick to highlight this.“I came to Saudi for Mecca and Medina, but outside of that the atmosphere is quiet and dull. There’s no music in the cafés and everything is segregated. I just didn’t feel comfortable.” While the cultural norms of Saudi Arabia may not appeal to Western Muslims, other Muslims more in tune with regional sensitivities are also turned off. Ahmed, a Syrian journalist based in Dubai, stressed that even if he knew what there was to see and do outside of the holy sites, his first choice destination in the Arab world would not be the Kingdom. “I don’t think Muslims are interested in coming to Saudi for anything else, and even if they did, the transport infrastructure is very bad. For Arabs and Muslims, there’s just no interest in going to Saudi when you can go to places like Egypt in the Arab world,” says Ahmed. “It is just too complicated. When I went I was only given a visa for the Umrah period, I couldn’t leave Mecca and Medina and even outside those two I didn’t feel safe.” According to one Jordanian travel agent, organising Umrah and Hajj visits through the Umrah Plus scheme appealed when it was first announced. However, the practicalities are proving more difficult.“Getting visas is becoming extremely difficult, especially since the terrorist attacks happened,” he says. “We never know whether somebody will get a visa, so that means we have to consider refunding down payments and often we don’t know about the visa two days before the visit. People just can’t rely on the system.” While Saudi will always attract visitors to perform Hajj and Umrah, it appears that the tourism authority’s hope of attracting more Muslims for tourism will still require a fundemental change at all levels of Saudi society.

Add a Comment

Your display name This field is mandatory

Your e-mail address This field is mandatory (Your e-mail address won't be published)

Security code