Saudi Arabia is full of rich natural and historical spectacles. It has attracted Muslim pilgrims for centuries from all over the world. Its diverse natural environment and affluent cultural heritage are major attractions for both domestic and international tourists. The paper describes tourism in Saudi Arabia and highlights tourist points in the country.
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Tourism in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is a land of abundant natural and historical spectacles. It has been a travel destination for Muslim pilgrims for centuries from all over the world. In Saudi Arabia, tourism was associated only with religious travelling until a few years ago. However, the trend has changed in recent years, and now leisure tourism has also become an important area of development for the Saudi government (About Saudi Arabia, 2015).
With the formation of the Supreme Commission for Tourism in April 2000, now known as the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquity (SCTA), greater emphasis is being laid on the development of tourism, preservation of the historical sites, and conservation of the traditional crafts in the country. Saudi Arabia has remained the centre of most religious pilgrimages for centuries. But now it has started focusing on the leisure tourism sector too. Domestic tourism has also been growing in the region in recent years (Vincent, 2008)
Saudi Arabia has multiple products to offer to tourists. The untouched serenity of the Red Sea Coast offers an ideal array of holiday destinations, including different cultural and natural attractions. In the North, it has the Nabataean city of Madain Saleh and in the south, the tranquil and unspoilt Farasan Islands. It has several important cultural heritage sites; however, only one of them is listed on the World Heritage list of UNESCO.
There is a lack of adequate infrastructure for leisure tourism in Saudi Arabia, despite its significance as a great tourist destination.
“The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) is well aware of the region’s potential for development, and in 2008 the government body signed a SR 2.08m ($555,360) contract with an international consultancy firm to explore possible options” (The Report: Saudi Arabia, 2009, p.210).
Places of tourist significance in Saudi Arabia
The major tourist attractions in Saudi Arabia are the capital city of Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, Taif, Makkah, and Madinah and Asir, etc. There are many historical, religious, and leisure destinations that attract visitors to Saudi Arabia.
Al Diriya: It is an evocative historical site situated on the outskirts of Riyadh. The town was the capital of the first Saudi dynasty and also the original home of the Saudi royal family (Places of interest in Saudi Arabia, 2015).
Masmak Fortress: A major historical monument existing from 1865 in Riyadh that comprises of a gallery of photos from 1912 onwards along with weapon display and audio-visual demonstrations of the unpredictable history of the building (Places of interest in Saudi Arabia, 2015).
Mada’in Saleh: This historic site has its archaeological importance for being in existence from the pre-Islamic period. The ancient mud-brick town of Old Al Ula and stone-carved tombs of Madain Saleh are archaeologically significant (Places of interest in Saudi Arabia, 2015).
Jubba: Situated in the north of the country, this town is a world-famous archaeological site that offers a marvellous view of the 39 sq. km rock carvings present therefrom 5,500 BC (Places of interest in Saudi Arabia, 2015).
Najran: It is the historic centre of trade in Saudi Arabia. In particular, the ruins of a very old commercial center belonging to the period from 500 BC to the 10th century attract the visitors.
Hail: Hail has a historical significance for being the relaxing point for people going to Makkah and Madinah through the famous route of Darb Zubaydah (About Saudi Arabia, 2015).
The National Museum is situated in the capital city of Riyadh and is one of the top museums of the Middle East (Places of interest in Saudi Arabia, 2015).
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Al Tayibat City Museum, situated in the historic city of Jeddah, has 300 rooms that exhibit the private collection of ancient coins and Islamic ceramic (Places of interest in Saudi Arabia, 2015). Besides these, the other significant museums to visit in Saudi Arabia are the Museum of Buraidah, Dammam Historical Museum, and The National Heritage and History museum in Riyadh.
In Saudi Arabia, tourism is associated mainly with religious pilgrimages. Every year, millions of Muslim pilgrims come to the holy city of Makkah to perform Hajj. It is the birthplace of Prophet Mohammad,
“The Hajj is the largest voluntary mass movement and the largest concentration of people for any event in the world and is enough to make Saudi Arabia especially significant in the study of travel and tourism” (Harrison, 2001, p.155).
However, it is a question of debate whether Hajj can be considered as a form of tourism or not. In Europe, pilgrimage to the sacred locations such as Lourdes and Fatima is considered as a tourist activity, but Saudi authorities do not associate tourism with religious activities like the Hajj. They believe that the pleasure-seeking behavior of the Western tourists differs from the behaviour of the pilgrims (Harrison, 2001).
Madinah is the other religious place in Saudi Arabia that is visited quite frequently by the visitors. Its religious significance is attached with people’s love and respect for Prophet Muhammad who spent the last years of life here. Only Muslim visitors are allowed to visit Makkah and Madinah (About Saudi Arabia, 2015).
Normally, Saudis visit nearby places for recreational purposes; however, spending holidays by the seaside has become an increasing demand among the well-to-do Saudis in the recent years. Towns like Abha are most visited by Saudis due to their pleasant climate during summers. The Gulf coast is dense with hotels and villas while many recreation facilities are being at towns like Al Qunfadah on the Red Sea (Vincent, 2008).
The Red Sea coastline is 1800 kilometres long and offers world class scuba diving waters. Visitors get an opportunity to explore various sites in the region such as Kingdom’s second city Jeddah, the ancient Islamic city of Al Ula and the most fertile city of the country, Asir. Major attractions in Asir are the Asir National Park and the hanging village, Habalah (The Report: Saudi Arabia, 2009).
“The mountain resort city of Taif is located 5,600 ft above sea level in the southwest region of Saudi Arabia. Its pleasant climate, lush parks, sunny skies and exotic wildlife have lone drawn Saudi families to this resort town each summer” (About Saudi Arabia, 2015, para 2).
Tourism development in Saudi Arabia
The diverse natural environment and rich cultural heritage is a major attraction for domestic and international tourists both. Besides this, the country has a religious significance too, for being home to the renowned Holy Mosques that pull huge number of Muslims from around the world to the country every year. In spite of having abundant tourist products of relevance, suitability and value, these are not exploited to the fullest due to lack of responsible tourism planning (Scott & Jafari, 2010).
Tourism has an important role to play in the economy of a country. Besides influencing the economy directly, it has many indirect and induced impacts of significance for the countries (Turner, 2014).
Saudi Arabia includes expansion in the tourism facilities and services in the Kingdom under the supervision of the Tourism Higher Authority. The government plans to expand the tourism industry and employ and train more and more Saudis in this area. It is also interested in developing national tourism and has assured its full cooperation to various partners including public and private segments. The Kingdom is facilitating an environment congenial for tourist investments (Tourism, 2015).
The increased amount of free leisure time and huge disposable income has become a recent trend in Saudi Arabia leading to increased domestic and international tourism. Saudis spend more on the international tourism rather than the domestic tourism. This causes substantial drain to the economy. Therefore, Saudi government needs to focus more on increasing domestic tourism in the country. Saudis prefer to go abroad for holidays due to better recreational opportunities and facilities.
However, there has been an improvement in the tourism facilities within Saudi Arabia in past few years, but these are not sufficient to satisfy the wealthier tourists. The insufficiency of tourists’ facilities as per the demands is largely because of the diversification of tourism facilities between the government and the private companies (Al-Thagafy, 1991 as cited in Perdue et al, 2004).
Measures taken by the Saudi government
According to the records of the World Bank, approximately 14.3 m people came to Saudi Arabia in 2012.
“But almost all come as pilgrims to Mecca or on business. Expos, conferences and flashy exhibitions are even more common. But these visitors tend to stay only a few days, spend little and are concentrated in a few, already-wealthy parts of the country” (Can the Kingdom attract more visitors, 2014, para 3).
Tourism development in Saudi Arabia is mainly based upon the Islamic principles that consider travel and tourism essential for different policies such as economic, social, political or legal within the nation. Islam considers tourism as a part of life and hence, Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) approves its development within the framework of Islamic values in the country. Consumption of alcohol, gambling and prostitution are strictly prohibited.
Men and women both are expected to be dressed in non-revealing clothes. It is also taken into consideration that the outside tourists are treated with benevolence and thoughtfulness. Leisure tourism is a new emerging concept in Saudi Arabia. Tourism comes in the category of the largest industries ranking third after energy and manufacturing sectors and offers a new market area for expansion.
Abdulaziz (1997) revealed that the absence of a formal agency for tourism before 1999 led to the state of disorder and disorganisation in tourism. Lack of unity among the different segments of tourism, inappropriate leadership and dearth of strategic direction led to the chaotic planning and trivial development in the field of tourism in Saudi Arabia. With the establishment of the SATC planned and organized development within the framework of Islamic rules is expected. The National Tourism Plan is set for the developing and promoting tourism industry of the nation. The expenditure pattern of the Saudis on holiday trips indicates better prospects for the country’s tourism industry.
Besides domestic tourism, events and conference organised in the country and huge expatriate community in the Kingdom also facilitate tourism across the country (Scott & Jafari, 2010).
The government has planned three major projects for the development of the west coast. However, the success of these projects depends largely on the sustained improvement of products and services. Cultural tourism is developing in the region as the locals are enthusiastic and thrilled to promote their heritage by organising fairs and festivals (The Report: Saudi Arabia, 2009).
The infrastructure within the country in terms of ports and airports is good. The same applies to the roads also.
“The government is increasing its efforts to boost tourism revenues by means of touristic investments and a relaxation of visa requirements. A major breakthrough has been to allow Hajj pilgrims to visit the country at any time during the year, rather than restrict visitation to certain periods” (Knowles et al, 2004, p.306).
Seeing government’s promotional strategies, the international brands in hospitality business are also taking interest in the tourism market of Saudi Arabia. A senior consultant associated with TRI Hospitality Consulting, Rashid Aboobacker says that, “The high level of liquidity and the excellent return potential are also attracting strong private sector interest in tourism investment in the country now” (Sahoo, 2014, para 22).
Saudi Arabia has a religious significance for being home to the renowned Holy Mosques. Further, the diverse natural environment and rich cultural heritage is a major attraction for domestic and international tourists both. The government is committed to increase tourism facilities and services in the Kingdom and employ greater number of local youths in this field. It is also interested in developing national tourism and has assured its full cooperation to various public and private partners, thus, facilitating an environment congenial for tourist investments in the Kingdom.
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