Our ‘white’ oil — tourism


THE discussion was about tourism in Saudi Arabia, when a member of our group commented, “What tourism are you talking about? I have just returned from a long car trip that took me from Jeddah to Taif, Baha, Abha, and back. Truth must be told: We still miss the success elements of true tourism!”

As much as he admired the landscape, the cool climate and the architect heritage on the foothills of the mountains and valleys, my friend was deeply saddened by the low quality of accommodation, entertainment, shopping and dining services. “Hotels and apartments are more expensive than in major cities despite their poor standards,” he complained, “Restaurants are modest, low in diversity, poorly served, and most have no family sections.”

Then, he noted, “If you enjoy the beautiful nature during the day, what is your evening program? Will you spend the rest of the night watching television in a flat that lacks elegance, view and room service? Would it be satisfying to just sit in a public park to eat nuts and dates, and sip on tea and coffee? If that’s fine with you, would your children be satisfied?”

I have heard such complaints from other visitors too, especially to rural areas and small towns. The problem, as I explained to them, has multiple aspects.

The first is that for mountainous areas, the season is just about two months. Imagine the cost of a hotel, a restaurant or a theme park that works only eight weeks a year. Summer has to carry the whole cost and bring all profits.

The solution is to invite other sorts of tourism, all-year around. They include sports and adventure tourism; conference and exhibition tourism; business and shopping tourism, medication and therapy tourism, culture and arts tourism, etc.

The second aspect is human resources. Tourism is still a new concept for us. Many have not been trained or have absorbed the concept, benefits and requirements. Serving others in our tribal heritage is unacceptable, except your own guest. A tourist, in the eyes of many, is just a “customer.” As a result, we need expatriate workers in most services. Because the season is very short, it is difficult to attract expensive high-quality staff.

Education is the most important and difficult part of the project. Countries that have succeeded in tourism have been blessed by the culture of service and hospitality. We should start by teaching these concepts in schools and colleges.

The third aspect is public awareness. Some tourists misuse public facilities with distortion, vandalism and garbage. This corresponds to a negative reaction from locals, reflected in their perception and treatment of tourists.

Our media and tourist centers should do better. Visitors should be well educated about the history, people and landmarks of the areas they visit. Parents and teachers must teach our young how to appreciate artifacts, use public facilities, communicate with nature and treat its treasures.

We also need professional training, like what the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Natural Heritage is providing for tourist guides, service providers and taxi drivers. We need a strategy collaborated by all concerned authorities — the ministries of education, commerce and labor, as well as, public and private tourist institutes, municipalities and chambers of commerce.

“Tourism is our white oil,” said its first pioneer, Prince Khalid Al-Faisal. It is not just about religious tourism, which is the most important aspect of the Saudi Vision, aiming to increase the number of pilgrims from 8 to 30 millions. But it also meant what the prince has started in Assir region, since 1970s, and what new projects is all about, such as the Red Sea islands, and the city of culture and entertainment south of Riyadh, and the development of the archaeological areas in Jeddah, Daria and Madain Saleh.

The Kingdom is rich in its heritage, cultural and natural resources. Some of its precious areas have not been developed yet, such as Najran, the Sulfur water in Al-Layth and Al-Hasa, the Farasan Islands, Mount Viva, and the Empty Quarter and Nafud deserts.

The transportation network is rapidly advancing with the construction and development of airports, railways and highways, as well as communication networks. With the implementation of the Saudi Vision 2030, dozens of museums, mega malls, entertainment cities and hotels are being built everywhere. With good execution, administration and marketing, we could reach, within few years, a point where the national income from tourism becomes higher than that of oil, which is decreasing and eventually depleted. I can’t wait!

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi is a Saudi writer based in Jeddah. He can be reached at kbatarfi@gmail.com. Follow him at Twitter:@kbatarfi