‘Domestic tourism set to boom’

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Updated 18 May 2014
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‘Domestic tourism set to boom’

Saudi Arabia's tourism industry is set to boom in the next two years with the completion of multibillion-riyal hotel projects, new local facility developments and the creation of thousands of jobs for citizens.
This is the view of Prince Sultan bin Salman, president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA).
He spoke to Arab News exclusively after recently receiving the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference Leadership Award in Dubai, in the presence of Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al-Maktoum, chairman and chief executive officer of Emirates Airline.
Prince Sultan said there is currently tremendous growth in hotel developments, particularly from first-time international investors. This is because the Kingdom has a strong and stable economy based on the government adopting a long-term and "balanced" fiscal outlook.
“This year witnessed a real go for the SCTA following several decisions. The most significant for the tourism sector was the approval of the King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Cultural Heritage project, and support for the commission administratively and financially,” he said.
Prince Sultan said the SCTA's main aim is to develop the domestic tourism sector because this is a major part of the market.
The SCTA was also providing for overseas visitors. “The Kingdom is never closed. Millions of pilgrims visit every year, and now the commission has started a post-Umrah tourism program that allows pilgrims to tour the Kingdom in collaboration with the Ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs and Haj."
He said that this is in addition to providing services for those who attend conferences, various exhibitions, and who arrive to work in the country.
He said the Kingdom plans to develop a wider variety of attractions including resorts, different classes of hotels, furnished apartments, ecohotels, and desert camps in various provinces. This includes Al-Ula, Hail, Al-Thumamah, Al-Qaseem, Al-Dariah, Al-Laith and Asir.
A project under way is the SR17-billion Al-Aqeer development, which will provide 1,364 hotel rooms at a cost of SR900 million. Other projects include the Souq Okaz development in Taif, Red Sea coastal projects, and the Al-Hada center development.
Prince Sultan said the SCTA has faced many challenges in its attempt to turn the sector around. “The journey was not easy, and it did not start with the supervision of the hospitality sector in 2009. It was preceded by the Ministry of Commerce giving the commission a full development program in 2007.”
The SCTA's restructuring of the hotel sector, which has attracted foreign players, included new licensing procedures, reclassifying about 4,000 hotels and furnished apartments in terms of quality, and then setting and enforcing price controls, said Prince Sultan.
These changes were introduced to meet the needs of investors, and provide customers with quality services at affordable prices.
A new financing program introduced by the SCTA would also help grow the sector, which has seen significant development over the past decade, he said.
In March 2014, there were 3,710 facilities, including 1,222 hotels, 2,488 furnished apartments, and 29,950 hotel rooms. More than 77 percent of the hotel investments were in Makkah and Madinah.
Prince Sultan said there would be massive growth in hotel projects over the next two years. High-quality hotel developments costing SR143.9 billion would be completed by 2020, he said.
A key objective is to provide jobs for citizens in the hospitality industry. There were 203,000 Saudi workers in direct and 126,000 in indirect tourism jobs at the end of 2013. This is expected to grow to 1 million and 773,000 respectively by 2020, he said.


First space tourist flights could come in 2019

Updated 13 July 2018
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First space tourist flights could come in 2019

WASHINGTON: The two companies leading the pack in the pursuit of space tourism say they are just months away from their first out-of-this-world passenger flights — though neither has set a firm date.
Virgin Galactic, founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, and Blue Origin, by Amazon creator Jeff Bezos, are racing to be the first to finish their tests — with both companies using radically different technology.
Neither Virgin nor Blue Origin’s passengers will find themselves orbiting the Earth: instead, their weightless experience will last just minutes. It’s an offering far different from the first space tourists, who paid tens of millions of dollars to travel to the International Space Station (ISS) in the 2000s.
Having paid for a much cheaper ticket — costing $250,000 with Virgin, as yet unknown with Blue Origin — the new round of space tourists will be propelled dozens of miles into the atmosphere, before coming back down to Earth. By comparison, the ISS is in orbit 250 miles (400 kilometers) from our planet.
The goal is to approach or pass through the imaginary line marking where space begins — either the Karman line, at 100 kilometers or 62 miles, or the 50-mile boundary recognized by the US Air Force.
At this altitude, the sky looks dark and the curvature of the earth can be seen clearly.
With Virgin Galactic, six passengers and two pilots are boarded onto SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity, which resembles a private jet.
The VSS Unity will be attached to a carrier spacecraft — the WhiteKnightTwo — from which it will then detach at around 49,000 feet (15,000 meters.) Once released, the spaceship will fire up its rocket, and head for the sky.
Then, the passengers will float in zero-gravity for several minutes, before coming back to Earth.
The descent is slowed down by a “feathering” system that sees the spacecraft’s tail pivot, as if arching, before returning to normal and gliding to land at Virgin’s “spaceport” in the New Mexico desert.
In total, the mission lasts between 90 minutes and two hours. During a May 29 test in California’s Mojave desert, the spaceship reached an altitude of 21 miles, heading for space.
In October 2014, the Virgin spaceship broke down in flight due to a piloting error, killing one of two pilots on board. The tests later resumed with a new craft.
The company has now also reached a deal to open a second “spaceport” at Italy’s Tarente-Grottaglie airport, in the south of the country.
Branson in May told BBC Radio 4 that he hoped to himself be one of the first passengers in the next 12 months. About 650 people make up the rest of the waiting list, Virgin said.
Blue Origin, meanwhile, has developed a system closer to the traditional rocket: the New Shepard.
On this journey, six passengers take their place in a “capsule” fixed to the top of a 60-foot-long rocket. After launching, it detaches and continues its trajectory several miles toward the sky. During an April 29 test, the capsule made it 66 miles.
After a few minutes of weightlessness, during which passengers can take in the view through large windows, the capsule gradually falls back to earth with three large parachutes and retrorockets used to slow the spacecraft.
From take-off to landing, the flight took 10 minutes during the latest test.
Until now, tests have only been carried out using dummies at Blue Origin’s West Texas site.
But one of its directors, Rob Meyerson, said in June the first human tests would come “soon.”
Meanwhile, another company official, Yu Matsutomi, said during a conference Wednesday that the first tests with passengers would take place “at the end of this year,” according to Space News.
SpaceX and Boeing are developing their own capsules to transport NASA astronauts, most likely in 2020, after delays — a significant investment that the companies will likely make up for by offering private passenger flights.
“If you’re looking to go to space, you’ll have quadruple the menu of options that you ever had before,” Phil Larson, assistant dean at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, said.
Longer term, the Russian firm that manufactures Soyuz rockets is studying the possibility of taking tourists back to the ISS. And a US start-up called Orion Span announced earlier this year it hopes to place a luxury space hotel into orbit within a few years — but the project is still in its early stages.