RIYADH/JEDDAH, 22 June 2006 — Traveling within the Kingdom or to foreign destinations during summer and winter has long been a Saudi practice. Consequently, Saudis spend billions of riyals on travel and tourism every year.
Dr. Nasser Al-Tayar, chairman of Al-Tayar Group, estimated the annual spending of some 4.5 million Saudi tourists at SR60 billion ($16 billion). The Supreme Commission for Tourism (SCT) aims to grab a considerable portion of this amount.
The SCT has been instrumental in changing the tourism plans and patterns of Saudis over the past few years. It has expanded the Kingdom’s tourist facilities, organized regional tourism festivals and introduced a variety of attractive programs.
The SCT is currently working on refurbishing the buildings of Madain Saleh Railway Station, part of the Hejaz Railway, in order to attract tourists. The station has 16 buildings distributed along a stretch of 400 meters, including administrative and storage buildings, a police station, a hospital, houses for workers and rest houses. It also includes a maintenance station, wood and fuel storage houses in addition to a castle that dates to the Abbasid era.
The move comes as part of the commission’s strategic plans to develop archeological and heritage sites. The investment project at the Madain Saleh Railway Station will include a visitors’ center and an exhibition hall as well as handicraft and souvenir shops. Most of the railway buildings at Madain Saleh were restored 20 years ago.
The Hejaz Railway was originally built to transport pilgrims from Damascus to Madinah, where they would travel on to Makkah for the Haj. The railway reached Madinah in 1908.
The idea was first mooted in 1864 during the height of the age of great railways around the world, but it was not until 40 years later that the Hejaz Railway came into being.
Madain Saleh, home to 131 tombs of Nabatean tribes who settled and flourished in the area around 500 BC, is a major tourist attraction in the Madinah region. The government has constructed a new road to Madain Saleh from Al-Ula, one of the oldest human settlements.
The commission also intends to preserve the identity of the old Al-Ula city as part of a program aimed at developing heritage villages. Al-Ula has 732 traditional two-story houses of similar designs and landmarks such as Tanboura, Atham Mosque, the souk and public squares.
The SCT also intends to develop the historical sites of Badr, Uhud, Khandaq and Khaybar in the Madinah region for tourism purposes.
Prince Sultan ibn Salman, secretary-general of the commission, said tourism projects worth SR50 billion would be established in various parts of the country.
The commission has opened five tourist information centers at the airports in Riyadh, Jeddah, Madinah, Taif and Hail, and intends to open 15 others before the end of this year. These centers provide all information required by tourists including tourist attractions in different parts of the Kingdom.
Meanwhile, the SCT has announced that 80 percent of the lodging sector will be Saudized during the next five years under a plan drawn up by SCT and approved by Minister of Labor Ghazi Al-Gosaibi.
The program would be implemented in stages, beginning with the five-star hotels and tourist resorts. The second phase will focus on nationalizing jobs in furnished apartments.
The SCT launched its Saudization drive with the travel and tourism sector, where it hopes to achieve the target of 81 percent during the next three years. The training program for the first batch will kick off in September.
The targeted areas include the travel and tourism sector, the accommodation sector (hotels and furnished apartments), tourist resorts, traditional handicrafts as well as Haj and Umrah operators, where expatriates constitute the majority of the work force.