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Saudi Arabia seeks place on tourism map

Saudi Arabia, January 25, 2018

Al-Wahbah, Saudi Arabia — Gazing at a shimmering salt pan below, a group of first-time Saudi hikers descended craggy slopes into a volcanic crater, part of a hidden trove of natural wonders being promoted to kickstart tourism.

Saudi Arabia will soon begin issuing tourist visas, opening up one of the last frontiers of global tourism — a sector touted as the desert kingdom’s “white oil” — as it steps up diversification efforts to wean itself off its crude oil dependence.

Now in the midst of historic social change, the Kingdom is seeking a place on the global tourism map by promoting sites such as the Al-Wahbah crater.

On a warm winter weekend, Amr Khalifa, a private tour operator, brought a group of first-time Saudi campers to hike to the bottom of the crater.

Clutching hiking poles, the hikers picked their way through the slippery, boulder-strewn path to the salt pan.

“I told my friends about Al-Wahbah,” said Jeddah-based corporate banker Mohamed Bahroon. “They had no clue.”

The crater, barely a four-hour drive from the western city of Jeddah, is a remnant of volcanic activity.

In recent months, authorities have built roads and markers to the site and erected picnic shelters around the rim of the crater.

“The key challenge is to make such tourism sites accessible,” said Khalifa, adding that he only had one camping group at the site that weekend.

Tourism is one of the centerpieces of Vision 2030, the blueprint to prepare the biggest Arab economy for the post-oil era, which was conceived by Crown Prince Muhammad Bin Salman, deputy premier and minister of defense.

In August the Kingdom announced a multi-million dollar project to turn 50 islands and other pristine sites on the Red Sea into luxury resorts. — AFP

It also plans to develop historic sites such as the centuries-old Mada’in Saleh, home to sandstone tombs of the same civilisation which built the Jordanian city of Petra.

The Kingdom aims to nearly double the annual number of tourists it attracts to 30 million by 2030, with the sector projected to become one of its top revenue earners.

President of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTNH) Prince Sultan Bin Salman told AFP last month that preparations were afoot to launch electronic visas in the first quarter of 2018 to “all nationals whose countries allow their citizens to visit” the Gulf state.

“The Kingdom is a very big treasure,” Prince Sultan said, describing its stunning landscapes. “We’re not just oil traders.”

Global travel agencies such as Britain-based Steppes Travel are already planning to offer packaged tours. “There is a lot of potential for Saudi tourism — we know this not least from the pent-up demand we have within our own database,” Justin Wateridge, managing director of Steppes Travel, told AFP.

“There is interest in those that know and understand Saudi Arabia and not much needs to change other than the issuing of tourist visas. Travel breaks down barriers and prejudice.”

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