Speaking on the final day (May 5 2008) of the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference, special guest speaker His Royal Highness, Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, Chairman of the Board and Secretary General of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) outlined the strategic plan for tourism development in the kingdom.
In a stage interview with CNN’s John Defterios he said that a recent statute has enabled the commission to restructure the industry under its new designation where as chairman and president, he now reports directly to the His Royal Highness, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud. He said that this move highlights the importance that is now given to the tourism sector.
“With responsibility for three new sectors as well as development of three more, we will be dealing with antiquities and museums, including exploration, plus accommodation, travel agents, tour operators and tourism masterplans,” explained Prince Sultan.
Among current developments, he said classification of hotels had begun, starting in Makkah and Madinah, while a major study was researching possible expansion of a heritage inn chain similar to the parador system in Spain.
“We are also looking at historic palaces to turn these in to accommodation or build rooms around them, plus historic villages – we have five planned and there will be accommodation in these.”
Prince Sultan revealed to the conference that a Red Sea Tourism masterplan was also in place while in other developments measures were being implemented to meet the challenge of Saudisation in the travel and tourism sector.
“We have three colleges planned and three or four more to come, partnering with major operators such as Accor,” he said.
While explaining that the mandate for the Supreme Commission for Tourism and Antiquities was to ensure that tourism adds value to the economy, culture and society, Prince Sultan emphasised that the first major target market was to attract the domestic audience, five million of whom travel overseas each year.
He said that measures were in place to streamline annual vacations to give people more shorter holidays while, in a bid to drive demand, the commission was looking to provide seed capital to event organisers to create MICE attractions in the kingdom.
“We have around 100 events this year, of which 15 are signature events, and there will be a lot more next year.
“Another development is the licensing of timeshare which has encouraged around 15 companies to set up in this sector already. We are also licensing tour operators, which did not exist previously,” he said revealing he too had passed his tour operator exam and held license number one.
Turning to visas, he said an e-system was being put in place, and those who came in to Saudi Arabia on a religious visa for Umrah could transfer this to a tourism visa electronically within 12 hours.
“We have also welcomed our first cruise passengers to Jeddah last month, as well as groups – but we are not ready to open up totally. Realistically, we are just at the start of the creation of the service side of tourism, as well as infrastructure, and we want to be in good shape first.”
Other initiatives complementing this expansion included the addition of four more airports, bringing the total to 30, plus the construction of gateway airport cities, starting with Jeddah, which would include accommodation, exhibition and conference facilities to target the meetings sector.