Tourism potential remains untapped, US expert says

By Javid Hassan, Arab News Staff
Publication Date: 
Wed, 2001-12-05 03:00

RIYADH, 5 December — The Kingdom has a good potential for promoting specialized tourism, but is not making the most of the opportunity. A lack of professionalism in the market and a dearth of good tourist literature are to blame, according to an American tour operator with extensive knowledge of the Arabian Peninsula.

“I feel that tourism in this region is for a particular type of person, not for the average individual. It has to be somebody who is interested in Islam, in its culture, its traditions, the people, and the food. I have seen many Americans who have visited Saudi Arabia just for the sake of record. They are not truly interested in the country in many respects. So they miss out a lot in terms of its culture and the people,” Brid Beeler, director of Worlds Apart, a California-based travel agency, told Arab News.

She has been invited by the National Commission for Wildlife Conservation and Development for presenting a paper on eco-tourism at an upcoming conference being sponsored by NCWCD.

Beeler said tourism needs to be promoted between the US and Saudi Arabia so as to bridge the gulf between Islam and the West, especially in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 tragedy.

Beeler was in Riyadh this week after leading an expedition to Rub Al-Khali, the historic Hijaz Railway line, and the ancient Nabatean city of Mada’in Saleh.

A 12-member group consisting of 10 Americans, one Canadian and a Mexican joined the desert safari exploring the Kingdom’s cultural and touristic landscape. In the capital, she called on Prince Sultan ibn Salman, secretary-general of the Supreme Commission for Tourism, and Dr. Abdul Aziz Abuzinada, secretary-general of NCWCD.

Beeler resided in Riyadh between 1985 and 1997, when her husband, Richard, worked for the US-Saudi Joint Economic Commission. It was during this period that she operated her own desert safari company. Since then, she has served as a consultant on inbound tourism to Saudi Arabia, where she has traveled extensively and explored all aspects of its cultural and religious traditions.

“Saudi Arabia shaped my future and sparked my interest in Islam and its culture,” said Beeler, who has been to over 60 countries around the world.

She said lack of professionalism in the travel trade and non-availability of tourist literature are among the problems that need to be addressed. Some good books on the rock art of Arabia and on Al-Jouf by the region’s governor are not available at leading bookstores.

“This apart, even some of the major tour operators are not seriously committed to the promotion of inbound tourism. Their staff are also not trained to handle the inquiries properly.”

Beeler continued: “One travel agency in Riyadh is exceptionally good and we need more of such agencies with a high degree of professionalism. Moreover, there is a need for professionally trained Saudis with a good understanding of the region. This is critical to the promotion of inbound tourism.”

Beeler said another problem was the high price of the package tour.

“A group from Microsoft wanted to visit Saudi Arabia, but they backed off when they learned that it would cost them $1,000 a day. This was because of the high rates that the local agencies were charging, leaving us no room to make a profit.”

She said the American market is the most demanding and the hardest to please.

“This aspect needs to be addressed if you are targeting the US market. By contrast, the European market is much easier to work with, as is the Japanese market.”

Speaking of her travels inside the Kingdom, she said one of the regions that needs to be looked at as a potentially rich tourist spot is Rub Al-Khali, particularly Bani Ma’arid, where one can track oryx and gazelle with the guidance of rangers. The Rub Al-Khali, she observed, equal to the size of France, is the largest sand desert in the world.

She said it is truly pristine with a rich habitat that should not be disturbed. The tourists would be advised to leave nothing except their footprints on the sand, which the wind can erase.

“However, I was sad to see the damage being done to the petrified forest area in that region with lake beds, fossils, hammer axes, grinding stones and so on. Much of the petrified wood has been removed from that area during the last four years. These are the areas that the Saudi government needs to look at and fence them off,” she added.

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