x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Saudi Arabia reveals hidden wonders

Saudi Arabia is increasingly allowing 'elite groups' of foreign tourists to enjoy the kingdom's many wonders

An aerial view of Mecca during the Haj. Salah Malkawi / The National
An aerial view of Mecca during the Haj. Salah Malkawi / The National

Most non-Muslims do not think of Saudi Arabia as a potential holiday destination, but there are signs that international tourism to the kingdom is slowly gaining traction among niche travel groups.

The vast majority of visitors to Saudi Arabia are religious tourists and business travellers. Millions of pilgrims flock to Mecca each year for the Haj. But the country has in recent years opened its doors, just slightly, to international tourism, with tourist visas available through certain tour operators for groups of visitors. Sadd Al Samallaghi is one local tour company trying to nurture tourism in Saudi Arabia. Ahmed Mostafa, the owner and managing director of the business, says he works with about 12 tour companies worldwide to bring small groups to the country on tailor-made trips.

"We're getting some growth, from Japan for example," Mr Mostafa says. Other tourists visit Saudi Arabia from countries such as Germany, the UK, France and China, he says. Sadd Al Samallaghi applies for the visas through the Saudi Commission of Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), which states that it issues visas to "elite groups" of tourists. "The tourist visas are given to groups only," says Mr Mostafa, adding that the minimum number of tourists required for a group is four people. However, there are restrictions for women. "A woman should be 30 or above if she's not travelling with her husband or a male relative."

He says Saudi Arabia, where alcohol is prohibited, is not interested in positioning itself as what he describes as a "sun, sea and sand" holiday destination. Its aim is rather to appeal to a select few culturally-sensitive foreign visitors who want to visit the country's historical sites. "We have sun, sea and sand, but we don't need that mass movement of tourism. For the time being, the culture part is enough. I don't want it to be like tourism in Dubai."

The SCTA has said its focus is on promoting domestic tourism. With 70 per cent of Saudi citizens spending their holidays in the kingdom, that market alone is huge. Although foreign authorities warn travellers of security threats from terrorist groups, there are foreigners who are keen to explore the kingdom's rich culture and many historical sites. To cater to this demand, a specialist historical, archaeological and cultural tour operator in the UK, The Traveller, started organising tours to Saudi Arabia in 2008, acquiring the visas for its groups through a local operator.

"Tourism in Saudi Arabia is very much in its infancy," says Irenie Ekkeshis, the head of The Traveller. "We're fairly pioneering in offering the tours." Ms Ekkeshis says she believes the company is the only operator in the UK organising cultural tours in Saudi Arabia. The tours include visits to Riyadh, Jeddah, the holy city of Medina, forts, mosques and a number of ancient sites. One of these is the UNESCO World Heritage Site Mada'in Saleh, which, like Petra, is a rock-cut archaeological site dating from the Nabatean kingdom of the first century. Ms Ekkeshis explains that the beauty of sites in Saudi Arabia, compared with popular tourist destinations such as Petra, is that visitors can explore them in near solitude. About 15 people go on each tour.

The Traveller's customers tended to adapt well to the restrictions and culture in the kingdom, adding that female travellers were provided with abayas, she says. "Our travellers are used to respecting local culture and traditions." The Traveller organised two Saudi tours last year, has organised two this year and plans to send three groups to the kingdom next year. "Our tours have been fully subscribed. The demand is there," she says. Analysts say that Saudi Arabia has the raw elements of a spectacular tourists destination, but a lack of tourism infrastructure and the vastness of the country make travel there difficult.

"The leisure tourism is still very much GCC, and the international leisure is not a sizeable mass," says Chiheb ben Mahmoud, the senior vice president for the MENA region at Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels. "The tourism authorities are still cautious because the country is very large," he says. "They are putting the house in order and making sure everything is in place for when the doors are more widely open. It is a very cautious strategy due to the dispersion of the sites.

"They are not closed for international tourism. There are logistics for the facilitation of trips for international travellers. "The difference between Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region is the strength of their domestic tourism. The SCTA is doing a lot to facilitate domestic tourism, not only as a service but as a generator of employment, and as a backbone to support international tourism as well." The SCTA says it expects domestic tourism to generate 13 billion riyals (Dh12.73bn) of revenue this summer.

"We are not talking about mass tourism," Mr ben Mahmoud says. "We are talking about sophisticated travellers. They are targeting westernised, very sophisticated, very well-travelled people who have exhausted all the other destinations and now they are ready to see something different. Because they are well travelled, they approach the country and the culture with all the due care. The country is absolutely magnificent. The diversity of Saudi Arabia and the sights, both natural and cultural, are magnificent."

Diving is another niche tourism market for Saudi Arabia. Last August, Regaldive, a holiday company based in the UK, started offering holidays in Saudi Arabia, mainly focused on the Farasan Bank in the Red Sea, with its array of marine life including coral reefs and turtles. "Saudi Arabia was added to the programme owing to the incredible quality of diving on offer," says Emma Mackenzie, the marketing manager at Regaldive, adding that the company has sent a "handful" of divers to the kingdom since it launched the holidays. "Saudi is a remote and untouched Red Sea destination. Divers are in familiar waters but without loads of other divers and boats. Dive sites are pristine and untouched.

"In terms of tourists, the country is slowly opening up to people wishing to explore and experience the extensive treasures below and above the water." Still, there are issues with the destination, Ms Mackenzie says. "A challenge is the image of the country as a closed state and no proactive promotion for leisure visitors." For accommodation, divers stay at a basic resort or on the boat, she says.

A number of international hotel chains including Marriott, Rezidor and Hilton have started to expand aggressively in Saudi Arabia, largely to meet demand from corporate, religious and leisure travellers. "The kingdom is one of the strongest regions for us to introduce our entire spectrum of brands as the range of new market segments has given rise to demand for mid-market, budget apartment suites, full-service and luxury hospitality brands," says Carlos Khneisser, Hilton Worldwide's senior director of development for the Middle East.

"Saudi Arabia is one of our key development markets." rbundhun@thenational.ae