JEDDAH, 22 May 2003 — In a multimillion-dollar show of confidence in the future of the Kingdom’s tourist industry, Saudi Arabia’s first “live-aboard” dive boat has arrived in Jeddah. The investment in the craft follows the Kingdom’s drive to attract low-volume high-spending foreign tourists to boost the inflow of foreign revenue. Aimed at the luxury end of the diving package-tour market, “Dream Voyager” makes her first full-scale charter trip in mid-June.
“Despite the conflict in Iraq and the recent bombings in Riyadh,” said Eric Mason, captain of the boat and executive manager of the Al-Ahlam Marina, “we have had no cancellations on advance bookings.”
Built in Dubai and operated from Obhur, the boat can carry up to 28 divers plus equipment for up to 10 days at sea. Intended to capitalize on the growing eco-tourism market, the “Dream Voyager” carries state-of-the-art communications and navigation equipment.
The domestic and international tourism revenue is substantial. Saudis spent some SR54 billion ($14.4 billion) on foreign travel yearly, according to Prince Sultan ibn Salman, secretary-general of the Supreme Commission for Tourism. The Kingdom raises about SR6.75 billion ($1.8 billion) from tourism, the prince said, quoting a report of the World Council for Travel and Tourism.
The Red Sea offers some of the best diving in the world, and the Farasan Banks and Farasan Islands south of Jeddah will be regular destinations for the charter boat. Pollution from sewage and construction has had a severe impact on the coastal regions of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast. “‘Dream Voyager’ is able to access the unspoiled islands that are home to the large fish and exotic wildlife that divers from all over the world are willing to pay for,” said Mason.
In an effort to encourage tourism, the government has slightly relaxed the application process for tourist visas, allowing foreigners to visit historical places, museums and antiquities. However, this move only targets tourists with an interest in the history and culture of the Kingdom.
“I feel that tourism in this region is for a particular type of person, not for the average individual,” Brid Beeler, director of Worlds Apart, a California-based travel agency whose most recent tour group to the Kingdom returned to America last week, told Arab News. “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.”
Many tourists who might be interested in coming to the Kingdom have been put off by the high prices, up to $1,000 a day, charged by local tour operators.
In comparison, the average daily expenditure for the GCC tourist ranges from $90 in Thailand to $300 in Switzerland. “I believe that anything between these figures would be reasonable for this region,” Sheikh Tariq Al-Qasimi, chairman of Sharjah Commerce and Tourism Authority, said recently.
He was discussing speeding up the development of the tourist sector and attracting more tourists by introducing a single-visa clearance system for GCC visitors and preventing the inflation of prices for hospitality services.
“We don’t seek large numbers but rather selected visitors. Quality tourists will generate more revenue than mass tourists,” Al-Qassimi said.
Al-Qasimi expected an increase by 15 to 25 percent of visitors within the Gulf region this summer with around 80 percent coming from Gulf countries.
“The dive-tour market is a substantially larger market with an international appeal,” said Mason, “and the Kingdom has unique areas of interest that could attract divers from all over the world. There is a whole new market to be tapped and with it will come revenue and hopefully a renewed concern for the ecosystems of the reefs and marine environment that is one of Saudi Arabia’s national treasures.”