From deserts to destinations: Saudi Arabia’s tourism transformation

n the last few years, there has been tremendous tourism focus and development in Saudi Arabia. With a population exceeding 30 million, the country’s leaders wisely decided to capture some of those tourist dollars spent elsewhere and help boost their economy.

While a few entertainment venues have been completed, there are many more in the building stages and others whose blueprints are being drawn. All are intending to cater not only to foreign tourists but to millions here who travel out annually.

One of the unique aspects of the GCC is that summers are scorching and school holidays extend beyond two months making it an annual chore for the head of the household to make plans for a brief respite somewhere preferably cooler.

And as summer holidays for schoolchildren officially begin this week, hundreds of thousands of families are busily preparing for a holiday somewhere or the other.

Summer heat and exotic attractions

To understand the nature of tourism in this country, one must come to grips with what is it that still drives most families to foreign destinations. In the past, it used to be the lure of shopping, cinemas and the like. But all that has been resolved. So what is it? Is it the summer heat, the exotic attractions, the force of habit, or just what?

I caught up with a few individuals who have booked plans for a vacation abroad. Qais, a professor at a local university is flying off to Malaysia with his family. This is not the first time for him and his family to the same destination. He finds the country people friendly, the prices just right, and many outlets of entertainment for his growing children.

Burhan, a municipal worker, is off to Egypt. “I like Egypt for its variety and friendliness. Tell me where you can find such places close by? Syria, which used to be our first choice is no longer an option. My children are interested in history, and Egypt’s ancient civilisation and historical artefacts offers them a chance to witness them first-hand.

Rana, a housewife from Taif had this to say. “During my childhood, I remember my father packing off the whole family to the hilly resorts of Abha and Sawdah. Even during the hottest period of the year, we would enjoy the cool morning mist as we camped on the hillside. But go to them today. There is hardly any area that is not walled by private owners.”

“What more could I want?”

Sameer, an architect is off to Cape Town in South Africa with his family. “We love the water, the beaches, the crashing of the waves. Cape Town has it all including good cool weather, fair prices, and a lot of attractions to keep my children amused. And the people are genuinely friendly to tourists. What more could I want?

“Yes, we do have hundreds of miles of coastline both in the east and west of this country” he continued. “But are they open to the public”

Leila, a university student in Jeddah, had this to say. “I am off to Paris with my family. Why? Because I love art, and Paris is a city of the arts. And I enjoy the variety of people from everywhere, all minding their own business as they meander through the city. And the cuisine … Par excellence.”

While the Supreme Commission for Tourism is actively engaged in promoting tourism within Saudi Arabia, perhaps they may take note of some of the views expressed by those who choose to spend their vacation money abroad. Friendliness, facilities, places of historical and general interest, and prices seem to be the overriding factors.

Give people what they want here, and watch them flock the places.