"All aboard, we're off to sea!" calls Muhammad al-Siddiqi. He is dressed down for the day trip, sporting a polo shirt and shorts rather than the traditional thawb and ghutra he wears in the office. Fourteen tourists from the United States follow him onto the launch, accompanied by tour guide Sameer Qadi. Minutes later, al-Siddiqi lights a cigar as he maneuvers the boat into the center of the creek that leads to the turquoise waters of the Red Sea. The general manager of Annakheel Village, a sprawling, palm-dotted beach resort north of Jiddah, al-Siddiqi is the organizer of this day's outing. For Qadi, manager of domestic tours for Saudi Tourist and Travel Bureau, it is part of one of the tours that his agency runs-in fact, one of about 30 such tours it has organized in the months between late 2000 and spring 2001. Working with foreigners who have come to Saudi Arabia neither to work nor to worship, but to sightsee and to learn, puts both men on the leading edge of a blossoming tourism industry.
Now nearly two weeks into the tour, the group has clocked some 6500 kilometers (4000 mi), beginning in Riyadh, where its members toured the National Museum and the ruins of the former capital, al-Dir'iyah, and walked the suqs, including a camel market. They then zigzagged across the country on six domestic flights, visiting al-Jawf in the far north, Dammam, Jubail, Hofuf and Qatif in the east and the Nabataean masterpiece of Mada'in Salih in the northwest. According to the itinerary, today is for relaxation: "a full excursion to the Red Sea, which contains one of the greatest coral reefs in the world, with over 200 species of coral."
Internet consultant Jan Zastrow of Honolulu, Hawaii cannot wait for the anchor to drop so she can don mask, snorkel and fins. "I'm not an exotic-destination junkie, and I've never even been a group tourist before, but this was the only way to get here," she says. For her, the trip to Saudi Arabia satisfied a curiosity that she developed two decades ago when she worked in the library at Columbus College in Georgia. "We received a lot of titles on Bedouin life and desert culture and I became fascinated by those images and descriptions," she explained. "But what really nailed my interest was that I could step out of the library and bump right into Saudis who had once led the life those books described, had moved out of the desert to towns in Arabia, and had gone on to become students in the States." Zastrow herself went on to a master's degree program in Arab studies at Georgetown University.
A visit to Arabia, however, had to wait until last year, when she spotted an advertisement for the tour offered by California-based Distant Horizons, one of some 50 international tour operators now offering excursions to Saudi Arabia in partnership with 10 government-approved Saudi tour operators. This year, these numbers are expected to rise as travel companies in North America, Europe, Australia, Taiwan and Japan eye Saudi Arabia, and Saudi investors pump up what the kingdom hopes will become a significant, nonpetroleum part of the economy. Janet Moore, proprietor of Distant Horizons, calls the level of interest in Saudi Arabia "remarkable," and has four groups scheduled to travel there this year.
These efforts are very new. The first full international package tour of the kingdom was organized in 1995, when Saudi Arabian Airlines invited one group of Japanese to see the major sights on a two-week trip. "We learned a lot" from that initiative, says Farouk Ilyias, tourism manager for the national flag carrier. The airline then began to "bring in selected groups from America and Europe."
Yet properly speaking, the first Western tourists arrived on a day trip in 1992, when a Bombay-to-Aqaba cruise ship carrying alumni of Stanford University received permission to dock for a guided tour of the city of Jiddah.
"That visit gave us a kick-start," says Peter Voll, who organized the cruise for Stanford and went on to found Peter Voll Associates (PVA), which specializes in educational tours worldwide and which ran its first all-Saudi Arabia tour in 1999. For 2001, Voll has slated—and in many cases, already filled—10 tours to Saudi Arabia, and he has scheduled stops at Jiddah, Dammam and Jubail for two international cruises.
Last year, Japan still led the arrivals list with 661 tourists in 41 groups. Germany held second position with 566 visitors; the United States was a close third at 500, all of whom came under the auspices of university alumni associations, the Smithsonian Institution or the American Bar Association. The tourists' average age is over 65 and most are "retired professionals, educated and well-traveled, with money and leisure," explains Voll, who adds that, in the United States alone, "this is a half-billion-dollar-a-year market of intelligent, sensitive, experienced and serious travelers. It is the most significant travel audience in the USA today."
For this group, Voll says, "Arabia is the strongest market for the educational travel audience focusing on cultural and eco-tours. People want to come to Arabia. This is the last frontier of tourism, closed for years and now gradually, thoughtfully and carefully opening up." It also benefits, Voll contends, from being historically misunderstood in the West. "People have not had the chance to see the personality of the region, its history, culture, diversity and rich legacy. It is an incredible part of the world."
Of course, travelers are nothing new in the lands that became Saudi Arabia in 1932. Pilgrims, merchants, wanderers, soldiers on the march, hucksters on the make, adventurers, mendicants, mariners and migrants have made their way to, and through, the Arabian Peninsula since the dawn of history. Among them, Muslim pilgrims have been the most numerous, having journeyed to Makkah and Madinah for some 14 centuries. (See sidebar, p. 10.) In addition, hundreds of thousands of expatriate workers from around the world have lived and worked in the kingdom since the discovery of oil in 1938, helping to build the modern nation's economy. In that same three-quarters of a century, tourism—defined as recreational travel—mushroomed into one of the rest of the world's biggest industries, and it is only in that time that Saudi Arabia has gained its reputation for inaccessibility.
That changed officially in April 2000, when Saudi Arabia's Council of Ministers formed the Supreme Commission for Tourism (SCT) and charged it with expanding opportunities for domestic investment and job generation in the field. The SCT's secretary-general, Prince Sultan ibn Salman ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz, well-known both as the kingdom's first astronaut and as a staunch advocate of cultural preservation, explains that the job "is to organize a new and sustainable tourism sector in the country. This is a complex industry involving interdependent elements such as education, services, security, economics and transport. This means we have to repurpose various government agencies and link their functions to us. We are building an organization from scratch."
On her tour, in one of those serendipitous moments that often come with travel, Jan Zastrow was able to get reacquainted with David Long, her former professor at Georgetown and the first director of the university's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. Author of two books on Saudi Arabia (The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, University Press of Florida, 1997, and The United States and Saudi Arabia: Ambivalent Allies, Westview Press, 1985), Long was the group's traveling expert, providing background, answering historical questions and giving informal lectures.
In the group, Long says, "there is constant discussion. I have had to work hard. These are sophisticated world travelers at the level of a postgraduate course."
In the short history of such tours to Saudi Arabia, Long's role has become a standard one: Most American, European and Japanese groups feature the en-route services of scholars from their home countries, many of whom have career-long connections with the country and the region.
"For years there has been a huge interest in the country, but little scholarly, journalistic or tourist access," says Long, who lived in Saudi Arabia during his diplomatic career more than 30 years ago. "Things are now changing. Opening up the country to non-pilgrim visitors will contribute to a greater understanding by outsiders of one of the least-understood countries in the world."
Saudi youngsters, returning to the marina as the sun sets, buzz the tour boat on their jet-skis while Zastrow talks of her experience so far. "Before we set off, we were warned not to expect too much. But people here have turned somersaults to provide us with what we want. As I see it developing, I think this destination is a niche market. It needs to be presented with a lot of reading as an introduction, focusing on behavior, religion, history and culture. There are so many rich themes to explore."
In Riyadh, archeology professor Ali Ghabban is uncovering those themes. As the head of the SCT's cultural-heritage program, he is cataloguing the national assets that will be grist for the cultural-tourism mill. "We are building an exhaustive inventory of sites that are of archeological, historical and cultural interest. They include historic sites associated with the Prophet Muhammad, the creation of the Saudi state, Arab poetry, and Arab heritage, values and traditions," he explains. "Such sites are important to Arabs and Muslims and will interest the international community, too."
Prince Sultan maintains that cultural tourism can be "a motivator and an engine of cultural renewal in our lives- in schools, in our homes and the community. I see it driving a revival of craft, art, traditions, music, story-telling, poetry, folklore and architectural heritage."
Ghabban spills over with ideas. "We have sites of important battles in the kingdom, and places mentioned by famous Arab poets. We have ancient pilgrimage routes. Did you know there are three old pilgrim routes from Yemen? One coastal, the other highland and the third inland!" Old crafts are also part of his focus: "We want to bring back dormant craft activities. Take incense burners. Our research shows that there were once more than 50 types here. Now there is only one predominant type. We want communities to uncover their local forms and bring back these ancient items. We are telling our communities to unearth their culture and present it."
Some have already begun doing this, however informally. With some five million foreign residents in Saudi Arabia, religious, educational and recreational tours have long been a staple of expatriate life. For the majority Muslim foreign community, Makkah and Madinah remain the most frequently visited cities, but for non-Muslims, natural and cultural-history sites, the desert and the reef-rich sea have been most popular. For two decades, aided by her Saudi husband, Yusuf Abdulraheem, American-born Sabrina Rigas has led groups of interested foreigners, whose jobs are in the oil-producing Eastern Province, into heartland areas of Saudi Arabia. Her convivial, personalized itineraries take her travelers into family homes, and her weekend trip to Qasim, a historic province in the Najd region north of Riyadh, has proved to be one of the most popular.
"This is a family-oriented society, and foreigners want to know how Saudis, especially women, interact and spend time at home," says Rigas. "This really interests people. There is a serious lack of information out there and I see my homespun efforts as helping to drive out stereotypes. After the trip, people tell me that they learned more about life—real, everyday life in the kingdom—from those two days than from perhaps a decade of living and working in the country."
Now, she is beginning to deal with formal tour operators: PVA offers an optional three-day extension with Rigas.
"The whole experience mesmerizes Saudis, too, who at first can't quite understand why we are taking tour groups to Qasim," says Rigas. "The groups get to meet my mother-in-law in her home. She is in her seventies and has had a busy life raising a family and trading spices. The visitors always ask her the same question: 'What do you think about us?' She appreciates that they are interested in her culture and have made an effort to get out and see it for themselves." Invariably, Rigas says, before the tourists leave the home, her mother-in-law gives spices to everyone. "I always tell her not to, but she always insists," says Rigas, who sees this generosity as part of the experience. "The groups get to experience Najdi hospitality for themselves."
Nearly 1600 kilometers (1000 mi) and two domestic flights away from Qasim, Ali al-Shabbi is helping to lay an institutional foundation for that hospitality. The trait is paramount in Saudi culture and he intends to make it equally characteristic of the kingdom's nascent tourism industry. Al-Shabbi is dean of the two-year-old Prince Sultan College of Hotel Science and Tourism in Abha, the mountain capital of 'Asir province and currently the hub of the nation's domestic tourism industry.
"Nearly 90 percent of the jobs in the country's hotel, catering and hospitality sectors are now held by foreign workers," al-Shabbi points out. "That could potentially translate into a quarter of a million jobs for Saudis."
Prince Sultan College is one of only four private colleges in the kingdom, and it is the first in Saudi Arabia (and in the Arabian Gulf region) to focus on management-level skills in tourism. The first class of 95 students, each of whom pays an annual tuition of approximately $10,000, is due to graduate at the diploma level next year, and the first bachelors' degrees in tourism and hospitality will be granted in 2004. A second diploma-level course for tourist guides will be added soon.
Al-Shabbi explains that, through an affiliation with Virginia Tech in the United States, the curriculum follows international standards while at the same time taking into account Islamic requirements for family and personal privacy. With an estimated 110,000 young Saudis annually coming onto the job market, he is confident the college will be in demand.
"Some of my friends are surprised that I'm paying for my own education when others get paid to attend state universities," says 25-year old Raddan Eid al-Zahrani, who worked in a bookstore and borrowed from relatives to pay his college fees. "Tourism is a new field and people here still have little idea of hospitality as an industry or field of study. I'm sure my investment will pay off," he says.
To bolster and spread such confidence, al-Shabbi is a frequent public speaker, well versed both in articulating persuasive arguments and in trend-spotting. Later on the day of our interview, he is due to talk to Abha's community leaders and businessmen on what has become a prominent topic in the nation's press, boardrooms, conference halls and homes—tourism.
But enthusiasm about tourism's potential is easier to come by than hard numbers delineating its early economic impacts. Before the SCT was formed, tourism was not counted as an economic sector in Saudi Arabia. Thus, extracting meaningful statistics from the more general trade-and-services categories is difficult, and estimates of the current contributions of the new sector are, for the time being, both inexact and lacking anything with which they can be compared. As for growth, experts believe the infant sector is almost certainly expanding at one of the fastest rates of any in a national economy where overall private-sector growth for 1999 hovered around 2.5 percent. In his presentations, al-Shabbi estimates tourism's annual growth rate to be at least double that. He tells his audiences that tourism "is set to become the number-two contributor to Saudi Arabia's economy," after oil.
International arrival figures appear to support his contention. In 1999, Saudi Arabia counted some 5.7 million visitors, based on visas issued. The total is low, for it does not include numerous visitors from the other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries—Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates—whose nationals do not require visas to enter Saudi Arabia. Of the 5.7 million who came on visas, one million arrived on the annual Hajj, or pilgrimage; another 1.5 million came throughout the year to perform 'Umrah, a personal "lesser pilgrimage" or "visitation" to the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. Some 2.6 million more came on business missions, for extended stays as expatriate employees, or as visitors to relatives, and the remaining 600,000 passed through in transit.
Such numbers show how small a role the new international package tourists play in the country's larger picture. Among the pilgrims, the number of 'Umrah visitors, already the largest category, is poised to begin rising dramatically, for with the beginning of the hijri year 1422 on March 26, 2001, there will no longer be limits on the number of 'Umrah visas issued. Moreover, pilgrims will no longer be restricted to a two-week stay in the immediate vicinity of the Holy Cities: They will be permitted to travel for a month to all other parts of the country after they fulfill their religious obligations. Saudi Arabia's Minister of Hajj Ayad Madani explains that 'Umrah visitors, as well as performing their rituals, "can now also become tourists and go sightseeing around the country, enjoy our coasts, deserts, mountains and archeological sites, visit our medical facilities, call on relatives and go on shopping tours. Dubai, Jordan and Bahrain already promote themselves as 'Umrah-linked destinations, actively marketing special packages, using their airlines, with stopovers in their own countries en route. So, with external competition, it is only natural that we in Saudi Arabia should compete too." Madani forecasts that tourism numbers could rise as much as 500 percent, which would push 'Umrah traffic figures toward one million pilgrims a month. This would create enormous new demands for accommodation, transport and other services, all of which would create jobs and boost the Saudi economy, while also allowing more people to make pilgrimages.
Last year, pilgrims arrived from 170 countries. Bernard Poletti, French ambassador to Saudi Arabia, says that for his country too, Hajj and 'Umrah are "very significant." Four million Muslims live in France, he points out, half of them French citizens, and some 12,000 people come to Saudi Arabia from France on pilgrimage every year. "With the new 'Umrah rules," he says, "we anticipate considerable interest from the French Muslim community in religious and cultural tourism."
Poletti, himself an enthusiastic desert traveler, feels a personal affinity for adventure tourism. "The French have a fascination for the desert," he says, and this, combined with France's experience as the country that attracts the greatest number of tourists of all—70 million each year—makes his country "keen to cooperate" with efforts to build the tourism industry in Saudi Arabia.
He spoke at the end of a grueling, adventurous day for 75 mountain-bikers who recently pumped their way around the 2000-meter (6500') peaks and dramatic escarpments of the 'Asir mountains for six days in the Abha Trophy 2000. Panting up ascents and burning brake pads on descents steeper than any bike-rally trails in Europe—some more than 35 degrees—the rally was sponsored in part by a French company, Nature Extrême Developpement, which also organizes cycling events in Jordan, Oman and Egypt, as well as in the Andes and Himalayas.
The Abha Trophy 2000 was originally the idea of the vice president of the 'Asir Tourism Board, Prince Bandar Khalid al-Faisal, whose energies have helped the region, which this year expects some 1.5 million visitors, begin to become the nation's "mountain playground." The tourism board was the first regional body of its kind in Saudi Arabia when it was formed in 1987. Now, its focus will increasingly embrace national goals, says its secretary-general, Muhammad al-Odadi.
Prince Bandar, who himself competed in the rally ("I was just happy to finish!") along with four other Saudi cyclists, is optimistic about the region's potential. "We are feeling our way forward," he says, "People here are showing interest in adventure activities, and this summer we plan to open a school for recreational microlight [ultralight-airplane] flying. We want to involve the local population in all aspects of tourism," including desert camping, camel-trekking, horse-riding and diving. "I see Saudi Arabia as a specialized market with considerable assets that can be utilized to attract non-Muslim tourists," he says.
Among the rally's European participants was Trevor Newland, an athletic 60-year-old who is chairman of the Ski Club of Great Britain, the biggest outdoor-activity association in the United Kingdom. He was on his second visit. "Ski enthusiasts would love to come to areas like this to cycle, trek, climb and scuba-dive to get fit before the winter ski season," he says. "Our 26,000 members have both the time and the money, and this is an unspoiled and friendly destination with good facilities."
By far the largest part of the tourism market, however, lies closer to home, in the domestic sector that 'Asir already targets: Saudi holiday-makers and visitors from neighboring GCC states. For some time now, the government has been exhorting Saudis to stay home rather than leave the country for foreign destinations, where they spend an estimated $8 billion a year. Although domestic travel by Saudis is rising, the SCT estimates that its total revenues constitute only 15 percent of what Saudis spend overseas.
Beyond redressing this imbalance, the SCT maintains that the private investment, construction and development that is making domestic tourism increasingly attractive to Saudis is providing exactly what the country needs: adding needed diversity to the economy, stimulating a range of regional and small businesses, and boosting employment opportunities.
The private sector is buying in. Investments in new resort facilities are up, and many are aimed at the domestic and 'Umrah-tourism markets. One of the largest private companies in the business is Syahya, based in Abha, which in six years has developed a portfolio of tourism assets worth $265 million, including seven major resort properties in 'Asir, entertainment complexes and 16 kilometers (10 mi) of cable car routes. New developments slated include ultramodern shopping malls and the country's first health spa.
Summer festivals are one new, popular drawing card for domestic Saudi tourists. In recent years they have appeared in many major Arab cities from Morocco to Jordan to Oman. Among them, the Abha Summer Festival, now entering its third season, claims to be the largest and, at eight weeks' duration, the longest of them all. Pioneered by the region's governor, Prince Khalid al-Faisal, himself a well-established poet and artist, it features musical and theatrical performances, poetry and literary evenings, art exhibitions, children's entertainment, parades, sports, heritage activities, and lakeside fireworks-and-lasers shows.
Visitor numbers are up more than 15 percent annually, says the Tourism Board's al-Odadi, and for this summer, Saudi Arabian Airlines has secured landing rights in Abha for 747's. Al-Odadi also hopes to put the festival into homes this year by securing pan-Arab satellite transmission rights through Saudi TV.
Abha's success has triggered parallel events in the Eastern Province, which now has a tourist board of its own. In the western part of the country, Madinah, al-Baha, Ta'if, Hail, Yanbu' and Jiddah all now run festivals with various mixes of cultural, sporting and shopping activities, all aimed at the pleasure—and the riyals—of domestic tourists.
Among these cities, Jiddah is the second most-visited destination for Saudi tourists, and its summer festival is second only to Abha's. Launched in 1999, it is scheduled at the beginning of schools' summer vacations, to get Saudi families to come to the city rather than board, say, one of the three-a-week nonstop summertime flights to Orlando, Florida. Last year, the tactic worked. An estimated 1.2 million Saudi tourists filled Jiddah's hotels, apartments, restaurants and malls near capacity.
The day after his Red Sea excursion with the Distant Horizons group, Muhammad al-Siddiqi speaks of the "fast-growing" Saudi family-oriented market that, in the summer, accounts for nearly all his business. "Saudis are increasingly expecting local, family-based entertainment, shows and activities. Just three years ago, summer occupancy was only around 60 percent. Now we are over 90 percent."
He assesses the trends this way: "With the long three-month summer holidays, Saudi families are now splitting up the period. They are staying part of the time at home, then taking a local Saudi vacation, and then they are going abroad. It's the second of these that interests us, of course. There are more attractions here now with festivals, and there are improved and more varied facilities. And of course there is the economic factor—the days are over when average families here could afford three months abroad. Also, I detect that religion and values are playing a part in this trend. We are comfortable here, and we feel safe, both physically and morally."
Not that there is anything new in Saudis enjoying their own country. "Local tourism has been here for years," says al-Siddiqi. "When we were kids we used to go to the desert for vacations. It's a traditional way to spend time, to relax, have fun, cook and enjoy the outdoors. Our very own style of local tourism is still popular."
The beachside resort managed by al-Siddiqi is among the properties in the $347-million portfolio of Saudi Hotels and Resorts Company, which two years ago moved into the top 100 privately owned Saudi companies as the country's largest tourism company. Its present aggressive schedule of investments in waterfront developments in the Eastern Province, on the coast of the Arabian Gulf, demonstrates its confidence that domestic tourism is taking off, and that it will, indeed, be the largest slice of the country's tourism pie in the near future.
Back in her home in Hawaii, Jan Zastrow reflects on her visit. "I am thrilled with the openness with which the Saudis are embracing tourism. Next time I hope to join a dive tour as well as see more of Jiddah, and I want to get into the desert," she says. And despite her years of study of the country and the language, she says she still found unexpected links of familiarity. "Here in Hawaii we have what we call 'the aloha spirit,'" she says. "The Saudi equivalent is ahlan wa sahlan," a phrase that means simply "welcome" but denotes the whole panoply of Saudi hospitality. For her, that hospitality was the lasting memory.
Peter Harrigan works with Saudi Arabian Airlines in Jiddah, where he is also a contributing editor and columnist for Diwaniya, the weekly cultural supplement of the Saudi Gazette.
Brown W. Cannon ( [email protected]) is a free-lance photographer who lives in Mill Valley, California.