October 30, 2009 / 11:16 AM / 8 years ago

Saudi tourism has potential but faces obstacles

JABAL SAWDA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters Life!) - Saudi Arabia’s highest point offers stunning views and a mild climate, away from the scorching desert heat that dominates most of the Gulf Arab state -- but hardly any tourists are around to see it.

A narrow road winds its way down the 2,700-meter (8,858 ft) mountain to the scenic village of Rijal Alma which is famous for its 300-year-old tall buildings. A cable car brings visitors up to outdoor restaurants.

The major oil exporter could be a paradise for the cultural, sporty or ecologically minded tourist, with its mountains, historic sights and diving spots in the nearby Red Sea.

Up in the north, there is the ancient Nabataean town of Madain Saleh and remains of the famous Hejaz railway, linking the Levant with the holy city of Medina, which was destroyed in World War One.

King Abdullah has tried to open up the conservative Muslim kingdom, and promote tourism and foreign investment to lower reliance on oil, especially in the poorer south of the country.

But he is facing opposition from clerics who oversee vast parts of society and fear that allowing tourists to come will change the character of the Islamic kingdom, one of the most conservatives countries.

In the southern Rijal Alma village, a foreign worker sells tickets for the local museum showcasing folklore.

“I was here 15 years ago and came back to show it to my wife. I really like Rijal Alma and the region,” said Khaled Ahmeri, a Saudi living in Jubail on the Gulf coast.

Getting a visa to the kingdom is a big challenge as only a few travel agents are allowed to apply for them for tour-guided groups.

TAPPING THE PILGRIMS

Due to the lack of tourists the industry mainly targets Saudis and other Gulf Arabs, the only ones who do not need a visa and like to escape the desert heat in the Asir mountains.

As a result, many hotels and facilities in Asir shut down when the summer is over. Accommodation is often designed to cater for Saudi privacy traditions -- no restaurants but big apartments with kitchens so families can cook their own food.

Even if there are restaurants you cannot take your partner out for dinner unless you are married as the kingdom strictly enforces segregation of the sexes. Single women are rarely granted visas.

Women have to cover from head to toe and cannot drive. And make no mistake: alcohol, bars and cinemas are banned.

Although tourists are scarce, Saudi Arabia hosts millions of pilgrims every year who are allowed only to visit Mecca and Medina, home to Islam’s holiest sites.

Authorities should consider allowing pilgrims to travel around, said John Sfakianakis, chief economist at Banque Saudi Fransi in Riyadh.

“The religious pilgrims, not the majority but not a negligible number, is a potentially lucrative market with ... purchasing power that can be tapped by the local economy,” he said.

Authorities also plan to attract visitors to summer festivals across the kingdom featuring Bedouin folklore such as an all-male sword dance called Arda, said Abdullah Ibraheem Motaen, regional director of the Supreme Commission for Tourism in Asir’s capital Abha.

“The summer festival is one of the main attractions in Asir. One to two million visitors come,” Motaen said.

But such plans have been hampered by clerics who have scuppered music concerts at the Asir summer festival and blocked what would have been the kingdom’s first film festival in Jeddah this year.

The religious police -- a coercive apparatus in the hands of the clerics -- have also opposed circus acts such as fire-eating or lying on beds of glass during such gatherings, newspaper reports said.

The clampdown has disappointed liberal hopes of change in the key regional U.S. ally.

“The cancellation of the cultural and musical events is a major setback to develop tourism,” said Saudi columnist Abdullah Alami.

POORER SOUTH

Fledgling tourism, which contributed 6.9 percent of non-oil GDP in 2008, is key to plans for lesser reliance on oil and more jobs for the 18 million mostly young Saudis.

This is especially key in the southern regions of Asir and Jazan, which have few industries offering jobs for graduates.

Both regions border Yemen, the poorest of the Arab states and one which is battling instability. The Saudi government fears that Yemen may not be able to stop al Qaeda from building up bases nearby for attacks on tourists in Saudi Arabia.

“Jazan and Asir are two very important regions challenged by fewer job opportunities than most other regions ... Regional economic development is an important issue that requires additional effort,” said Sfakianakis.

The number of job seekers in Asir went up to 22,600 in 2008 from 10,300 in 2006 in Asir, while Jazan, the southernmost region, saw a rise to 5,700 in 2008 from about 4,000 in 2006, he said.

The south also lags behind in technology. Despite being densely populated Jazan has only 122,400 internet users and Asir 287,400 -- a sharp contrast to the 2.5 million in the capital Riyadh.

“Tourism in Asir is the main source of income because there are no other activities... that the region could depend on,” said Abdul-Karim al-Hanini, deputy governor of Asir.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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