Sands Are Shifting as Saudi Arabia Moves towards Tourism

Article excerpt

Hotel operators are rubbing their hands with glee as conservative Saudi Arabia makes tentative steps towards opening up to tourism.

But they remain aware of the limitations they could face.

It may not be the most obvious holiday destination - alcohol is banned, unmarried men and women are segregated, women are veiled in public and not allowed to drive - but tour operators are confident that they can appeal to a specialist market which they say is just waiting to be tapped.

Earlier this year, the Saudi cabinet approved broad guidelines for issuing visas to tourists, but asked for detailed regulations before allowing visitors to tour historic and tourist sites in the Gulf Arab state.

Until now, visas have not been issued to individual tourists and other foreigners receive visas through a Saudi sponsor.

'We are starting right now to witness an influx in group inquiries from all sorts of nationalities,' said Mr Magdi Samman, area director of marketing Middle East and Africa for Bass Hotels and Resorts.

'I think Saudi Arabia will especially appeal as a destination to special interests groups,' Mr Samman said, speaking on the sidelines of Dubai's annual Arabian Travel Market, citing diving and historical tours as examples.

He said the Bass group had seven new hotels due to open in the kingdom, adding to the 27 properties they already have under management there.

Saudi Arabia set up a state body to promote tourism this year.

Encouraging tourism growth is part of a wider effort within the kingdom to reduce its dependence on oil revenues and thus its vulnerability to the vagaries of global oil prices.

Saudi Arabia is the world's largest oil exporter and relies on oil to make up more than 70 per cent of state revenues. …