High-tech tourism

From a standing start to e-visas, Saudi Arabia's Supreme Commission for Tourism has had a busy five years. Eliot Beer talks to its IT chief about some of the challenges this new organisation has faced, and the leadership of a very space-age Prince.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  April 2, 2006

|~|princesultan200.jpg|~|Prince Sultan has provided strong leadership for SCT, according to his head of IT Abdullah Al Mosa.|~|As one of the country's newer public bodies, Saudi Arabia's Supreme Commission for Tourism (SCT) had something of a head start in developing a modern IT infrastructure. Abdullah Al-Mosa, assistant deputy secretary general for IT at SCT, is certainly very proud of his department's accomplishments in information and communication technology.

"SCT was founded five years ago, and it came to light in the era of technology; this helped in avoiding migration from the legacy architecture to the new trend of IT," says Al-Mosa. "All the applications being used, as well as the infrastructure and backbone, are selected very carefully. So at the moment we have nothing to worry about ageing, or migrating from old to new systems."

SCT is in many ways a very public face to the Saudi Arabian government sector. The department has been charged with developing the Kingdom's tourism sector, which includes managing aspects of the mighty Hajj twice a year. The commission's secretary general, His Royal Highness Prince Sultan ibn Salman ibn Abdulaziz Al-Saud, also brings a high-profile element to the organisation; he was not only the first Arab in space - going up with a US space shuttle crew in the 1980s - but he has also won a number of accolades in recent years, most notably Saudi IT man of the year
in 2003.

"Because of our achievement under the vision and direction of Prince Sultan, this adds a little bit of pressure for SCT to become the ideal model for IT and e-government," says Al-Mosa. "Partly out of this came a move for someone from SCT to sit on the e-government advisory body, which I am now doing."

The IT head says implementing e-government in Saudi Arabia is complicated by the need to integrate and align one department's system with that of a number of others. Al-Mosa gives the example of having to make sure SCT's policies are in line with Ministry of Finance guidelines.

Despite this, he says, SCT has succeeded in implementing a number of projects in what he says is excellent time, such as an ERP system from Oracle in one year. The biggest challenges involved in the implementation were not technical, but revolved around the human side of the equation.

"One of the challenges was training professionals to set up the implementation plan, the project plan, and the management," comments Al-Mosa. "Because SCT is such a young organisation, integrating people from different backgrounds, the public and private sectors, has been something which we've had to work very hard on. Everybody played their roles properly, but integrating all of the roles was the challenge.

"The other major human aspect was preparing people for the change. I think there is always a fear of what you don't know, and a resistance from people, so you have to work at training them, educating them to deal with the new application and make sure it is adopted effectively. By doing this we were able do implement not just the ERP but a whole range of other systems as well."

In addition to the ERP system SCT has also deployed applications from FileNet, GIS and other vendors, including document management, content management and workflow systems. Al-Mosa says that by bringing in modern systems without the hindrance of legacy applications, SCT has been able to create a modern, efficient infrastructure to build on. Even with this being the case, though, the SCT IT chief says the organisation had a big leap in productivity when the ERP system came into use, with a number of areas benefiting specifically.

"We saw a big improvement in efficiency, in productivity, in path-processing, in accuracy when we brought in the ERP," Al-Mosa says. "Communications was another area where we had a big benefit from the new system; most of our applications are web-enabled, so this allows our employees to communicate from anywhere in the world - it doesn't matter where they are. So if you are on a business trip, and someone needs your opinion on a subject, it is simple to log into the application remotely and do whatever needs to be done."

Al-Mosa is enthusiastic about remote working for SCT staff, and brings up the organisation's video conferencing solution, which leverages the commission's existing wide area network (WAN) to help save time and money.

He says: "We have provincial tourism offices scattered across Saudi Arabia, so instead of asking them to travel to Riyadh we can use video conferencing technology to hold meetings. This means our employees save time by not having to fly and save money as well. We have our WAN in place for all our other applications, so this is a natural extension of it, to use it for video conferencing."

The future of SCT's IT implementations are firmly in the e-government vein. Al-Mosa remains tight-lipped about any specific solutions in the longer term, but he does mention the upcoming e-visa programme, which will be launched within a couple of months, and has already been publicised in the Saudi Arabian press. Al-Mosa says SCT's objective is to make the processes for getting into Saudi Arabia easier for tourists and businesspeople, and the e-visa project is a key part of this.

His enthusiasm and belief in the Kingdom's IT situation is very apparent, and he talks with great zeal about various government initiatives to increase computer literacy. That he remains slightly cagey about the commission's e-government plans is perhaps understandable, given his opinions on the organisation's leading role among Saudi government bodies, but he is clearly committed to the cause.

And Al-Mosa's mantra for success is also clear, and has obviously informed his investment decisions at the head of the SCT's IT department: "If you have proper information, proper analysis, proper trends, you will lead."||**||

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