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Keeping Petrodollars at Home : Saudis Making Effort to Boost Regional Tourism

Associated Press

The Saudis, fewer petrodollars in their pockets and worried about security and culture shock, have started looking for holidays at home and finding that there is more to the country than sand.

In the oil price heyday of the 1970s, Saudi Muslims flocked to the kingdom’s air terminals to escape the heat and monotony of the desert for the great tourist capitals--Paris, London, New York and Los Angeles, the French and Spanish Rivieras, Istanbul and Cairo.

But local tourism has been on the rise for the last five years, spearheaded by a government campaign to encourage Saudis to spend their vacation dollars at home.

“There are quite a lot of religiously conservative families who suffer when they go abroad,” said Ibrahim al Sayed, director general of tourism development in the country’s mountainous southwest Asir region. “They don’t want their teen-agers to copy Westerners.”

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He added that many Saudis are also acutely aware that language and cultural barriers make them attractive victims for con artists abroad.

“I’ve traveled in Europe and I’ve faced some of the troubles,” said Fahd al Sayejh, public relations manager at the Riyadh Intercontinental Hotel. “My family’s now looking for a villa in Abha (in the cooler Asir region). There are many people who spend their summers there who used to go to Europe.

“It’s beautiful. It reminds us of the old days when we used to go to Lebanon every summer. The mountains are the same,” he added. "(But) in the oil boom years, businessmen thought nothing of driving to the airport and boarding any available international flight. Now people are more aware of spending their money.”

Tourism within Saudi Arabia may seem like a hard sell, given the country’s reputation as a “desert kingdom,” lacking much in the way of amusement.

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But beaches along the country’s eastern border on the Persian Gulf draw big crowds.

Jidda on the Red Sea attracts scuba-diving enthusiasts and Najran, close to Yemen, offers unusual architecture. For a change of scenery, many tourists try the southwest.

“The whole southwest area is very popular,” said Antoni Kuhnen, who runs the Al-Baha Motel in that region. Kuhnen estimates that the motel, opened in 1985, now books around 20,000 tourists a year.

Al-Baha, Saudi Arabia’s smallest province, is situated between Taif, where the government retreats into the mountains for the summer months, and Abha, capital of Asir province, which boasts 1,736 square miles of national park.

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A local newspaper noted that “visitors to the Abha region reached an unprecedented number, to the extent that the real estate offices in Abha cannot cope with the great demand for furnished and unfurnished flats.”

An estimated 800,000 visitors were reported to have made it despite a relatively small airport.

The recent popularity of in-country tourism is due largely to the government. Five years ago, the few tourists who came to this region had to either camp out or rely on the kindness of strangers for accommodation.

Now, there are five hotels in the area, some of them bankrolled by the Finance Ministry. Private businessmen are also being encouraged to invest in tourism.

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An amusement park would make the area more attractive to Saudi families who generally have large numbers of children to entertain, he said. Land has already been allocated, but awaits an investor.

Al-Baha does not lack scenic beauty. At nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, the air is cool, crisp, and a bit damp--a welcome change from just about anyplace else in the kingdom during the summer months.

The mountains, rough, craggy, and dotted with scrubby green plants, rise dramatically out of the Tihama Valley and are populated by shepherds tending flocks of sheep and goats. Baboons lope down the mountainside, carrying scraps of food fed to them by motel staff and early rising guests.

“As long as the facilities are there, the tourists will come,” said Kuhnen, who nonetheless believes the region suffers for lack of recreational diversions.

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