By Iman Almutairi
When Saudi Arabia recently began granting visas to tourists from 49 countries, I wondered how many foreigners, especially Westerners, would embrace the idea of visiting an unspoiled land, which has remained elusive for visitors even though it houses dozens of archaeological sites, historical monuments, and unique landscapes. Then I recalled the Japanese proverb: “If you love your child, allow him travel!”
There are those who love to travel, because it increases their knowledge of geography, people and history. There are those who love to travel alone, without companions! The famous British poet Rudyard Kipling said: “He travels the fastest who travels alone.”
Some believe that travel is a journey to plumb the depths of the soul, by learning about people, places, and monuments. I believe that there is no difference, in terms of meaning and practice, between travel and tourism, except in technical terms related to the industry.
There is no doubt that the growing global interest in tourism over the past years has led to an increase in its role and a surge in the number of tourists on an annual level. The number of international tourists in the 1950s stood at nearly 25 million, but with advancement and development, it has now reached 1.4 billion annually.
In Saudi Arabia, which is vigorously implementing an ambitious Vision 2030 program, the tourism sector has witnessed significant growth this year. Reports indicate that there has been a huge increase in the number of tourists, especially with the start of the “Saudi Seasons” festivals, which included sporting, artistic, cultural and recreational activities that showcased unique features of each region of the Kingdom. Most importantly, these events have led to the emergence of innovative and pioneering youth projects that have contributed to the creation of temporary jobs for Saudis.
After the success of these projects and with the opening of new horizons for Saudi youth, there should be a focus on raising the level of tourism awareness so as to ensure sustainable economic growth and the transformation of temporary jobs to permanent ones.
There is no doubt that special events serve as an important tourist and economic stimulus and should not be aimed at merely filling seats and selling tickets only but rather be used to market cities in a sustainable manner as well as to attract tourists and visitors throughout the year. Therefore, spending on marketing must be equivalent to a minimum of 30 percent of the event’s budget in order to reap a return from the investment and achieve sustainability of employment opportunities.
Giving proper attention to the tourism sector means the development of tourist attractions at the economic, social and urban levels. The Kingdom has recently begun issuing tourist visas and this launch should not be limited to routine airport procedures, but must be supported by “smart” global marketing campaigns to strengthen Saudi Arabia’s position as a leading cultural, tourist and investment destination.
The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) must develop the tourism infrastructure, coordinating all aspects to raise levels of growth in order to attract tourists from all over the world to explore the rich Saudi heritage, monuments, geography and history. All relevant sectors must swing into action to provide the most basic visitor requirements that still need to be improved.
The Saudi national carrier must operate direct flights from various global destinations to the most important tourist cities in the Kingdom. The Ministry of Transport should provide innovative and safe transport options with a high quality system and strict control that protects citizens and tourists. This will help prepare taxi drivers to deal with visitors properly, as they are the first people whom tourists meet after completion of their passport procedures.
Food is also very important. Different restaurant options must be provided to meet the health and nutritional needs of tourists. Tourists will be provided with an opportunity to sample the Saudi cuisine, with its many choices and varieties.
Equally important is the need to diversify housing options. Many tourists would rather stay in boutique hotels owned by people or families than in luxury hotels and apartments. It saves them a lot of money and increases the personal contact between the visitor and the host.
It is necessary to invest in local Destination Management Companies (DMC) by providing financial support, facilitating licenses for private sector entrepreneurs, establishing partnerships with foreign tourism companies, training tourist guides, and establishing a clear mechanism to govern their relationship with tourism companies, as they will represent the country’s image in all phases of the tourist’s visit. Ultimately they are the ones who create a good or bad impression about the country and its people.
The marketing of destinations at the tourist, investment and cultural levels is not an impossible task, but it needs to keep pace with its dynamism and speed of development. Countries need several years of strategic marketing and promotional campaigns aimed at attracting tourists.
Finally, we must not forget the fact that we are a people fond of tourism and travel. What is important for us is to make a concerted effort to ensure that the visit of every foreign tourist to our country is a rich experience never to be forgotten.
We welcome the world to the Kingdom.