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Allow pilgrims to tour Saudi, says expert

Riyadh, October 31, 2009

Saudi authorities should consider allowing pilgrims to travel around to promote tourism, said a top official of an international bank in Riyadh.

'The religious pilgrims, not the majority but not a negligible number, is a potentially lucrative market with ... purchasing power that can be tapped by the local economy,' said John Sfakianakis, chief economist at Banque Saudi Fransi.

Authorities also plan to attract visitors to summer festivals across the kingdom featuring Bedouin folklore such as an all-male sword dance called Arda, said Abdullah Ibraheem Motaen, regional director of the supreme commission for tourism in Asir's capital Abha.

'The summer festival is one of the main attractions in Asir. One to two million visitors come,' Motaen said.

The major oil exporter could be a paradise for the cultural, sporty or ecologically minded tourist, with its mountains, historic sights and diving spots in the nearby Red Sea, said a report.

Getting a visa to the kingdom is a big challenge as only a few travel agents are allowed to apply for them for tour-guided groups.

Due to the lack of tourists the industry mainly targets Saudis and other Gulf Arabs, the only ones who do not need a visa and like to escape the desert heat in the Asir mountains.

As a result, many hotels and facilities in Asir shut down when the summer is over.

Although tourists are scarce, Saudi Arabia hosts millions of pilgrims every year who are allowed only to visit Makkah and Madinah.

'The cancellation of the [recent] cultural and musical events is a major setback to develop tourism,' said Saudi columnist Abdullah Alami.

Fledgling tourism, which contributed 6.9 percent of non-oil GDP in 2008, is key to plans for lesser reliance on oil and more jobs for the 18 million mostly young Saudis, according to the report.

'Jazan and Asir are two very important regions challenged by fewer job opportunities than most other regions ... Regional economic development is an important issue that requires additional effort,' said Sfakianakis.

The number of job seekers in Asir went up to 22,600 in 2008 from 10,300 in 2006 in Asir, while Jazan, the southernmost region, saw a rise to 5,700 in 2008 from about 4,000 in 2006, he said.

The south also lags behind in technology. Despite being densely populated Jazan has only 122,400 internet users and Asir 287,400 -- a sharp contrast to the 2.5 million in the capital Riyadh.

'Tourism in Asir is the main source of income because there are no other activities... that the region could depend on,' said Abdul-Karim al-Hanini, deputy governor of Asir. – Reuters




Tags: Saudi | tourism | travel | pilgrims | Riyadh |

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