As the contribution of tourism sector in the Saudi GDP is seven percent, considered too low, businessmen have called for developing infrastructure and joint partnerships to diversify the Kingdom's tourism portfolio with leisure and health travel. The Kingdom's religious tourism accounts for about 45 percent of its total visitors.
A recent study released during the World Economic Forum 2011, Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report (TTCR), covers travel competitiveness during the period from 2008-2011, which confirms that Saudi Arabia has moved from 82nd position in 2008 to 62nd in 2011. The report calls for increased investments in infrastructure, hygiene, IT, health care and telecommunications.
Experts in tourism sector spoke to Arab News said that Saudi Arabia has international standards that reflect the strength of its local economy. According to them, local tourism needs to be developed with improved infrastructure, competitive environment, and cooperation between the public and private sectors.
Emad Muguarbel, CEO of Red Sea Reef that is involved in developing the Jeddah coastline project on behalf of the municipality, emphasized the need for focusing on distinct advantages of Saudi destinations in order to make them a preferred choice. "Saudi Arabia should create one tourism brand through hundreds of partners. Agreements with several partners can help develop a comprehensive tourism development program thus ensuring a guaranteed quality of service," he said.
According to TTCR, Saudi tourism faces many challenges including the number and quality of events, cooperation between the public and private sectors, cultural and natural heritage products, and competitive marketing activities.
"The current initiatives in tourism have helped in creating awareness. However, we still need to continue improving tourism at a world-class level in terms of quality, branding, and communication. If we talk about the Kingdom, Riyadh would be a good example. It has come a long way in its infrastructure and corporate events. Despite the rapid change in Riyadh's infrastructure, there is still a miss. During the peak tourism time, some people can't find a hotel room in Riyadh, which points at the need for investing in more first-class hotels and resorts," he said.
Muguarbel said the development of the Corniche beach project in Jeddah once completed would add to the tourist attractions of the city. "Sustainable development in tourism needs a proper coordination and partnership. Saudi Arabia should have a solid strategy to showcase economic, cultural, sports and tourism diversities," he said, adding that there is a need for world-class event organizers for world-class events," said Muguarbel.
"Event organizing industry is still underdeveloped. We have small number of interesting events such as Hail rally, competitiveness forum, and SCTA events. Unfortunately, SCTA cannot produce all events alone," he said.
Faisal Saleh Al-Turki, vice president of Nesma Holding Company, said the Kingdom lacked public places in sufficient numbers, thus posting a serious challenge to further tourism promotion.
"When we talk about tourism in the Kingdom, Jeddah will be the first city that jumps to everyone mind. Unfortunately, despite the publicity that most of Jeddah's lands located near the sea are owned by private individuals or companies. It is almost impossible to go to the beach if you don't own a beach house or pay rent somewhere," Al-Turki said. "Additionally, there is an overall lack of public spaces, starting with sidewalks. Therefore it is often not possible to truly experience a tourist city," he added.
"We have to admit that there are many difficulties in terms of mobility within cities and the general lack of public transport. Shortage of national transportation is also a serious issue, and it is often difficult to fly domestically," he said.
According to Al-Turki, partnership is a key factor that can boost tourism, especially in terms of developing clean cities.
The TTCR stated that if the environment were not protected during the development phase of tourism, Saudi Arabia's competitiveness in this field would suffer. Saudi Arabia also ranks in the bottom 25 percent worldwide in health and hygiene.
In addition, TTCR confirmed that Saudi Arabia ranks 129th, lowest worldwide, particularly in the numbers of international fairs and exhibitions.
"We need to focus not only on the main cities but rather give attention to the beautify villages. The public sector together with its private counterpart should promote tourist expos in villages. Expos that related to history and heritage are also required," said Al-Badr Hamidaddin, account executive at Adalid Public Relations.
Yasser Al-Misfer, managing director of Silk Road hospitality which is member of Memar development and construction based in Saudi Arabia operating all over the Meddle East and Africa, called for strong relations between the SCTA and the business sector who are involved directly and indirectly with tourism.
He added: "We need to develop tourism products like events, conferences, exhibitions and many other products to make Saudi Arabia the destination for business tourism or family vacations."
According to Al-Misfer, partnerships are always healthy in different industries.