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Saudi tourism train chugging too slowly

Saudi tourism train chugging too slowly

The Kingdom’s tourism officials say they don’t have enough cash to promote the country’s travel industry. And good luck getting that visa.

September 10, 2008 9:09 by

Scott MacMillan

There’s a locomotive abandoned in the Saudi desert about three hours’ drive from the city of Hail – four, if one has to share the road with a police escort, as a foreigner likely will. The iron behemoth’s date and place of manufacture is stamped on the side of the engine: 1906, at the Arnold Jung locomotive factory in the Rhineland, and it stands as a fitting symbol of Saudi Arabia’s virtually non-existent foreign tourism industry. The train chugged across multiple empires – German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman – before ending up in one of the most sparsely populated parts of the Arabian Peninsula. It rests amidst a dun-colored landscape of rocky outcrops into which ancient tombs have been carved.

Believe it or not, though, the train’s resting place, Station 21 of the old Hejaz Railway and the best preserved of the defunct line, is supposed to be a tourist attraction. But ghostly echoes of the past, not tourists, fill the hall. The Turks built this line in the dying decades of the Ottoman Empire, when Istanbul controlled large parts of what is now Saudi Arabia. The Arabs famously destroyed it in their revolt during World War I, and since then it has been difficult to bring in large numbers of visitors. Tracks that once stretched hundreds of miles in either direction were either blown to shreds in the war or ripped up and used as building material by locals.

The station sits adjacent to the Nabatean ruins of Madain Saleh, one of Saudi Arabia’s archaeological gems. In its 2006 application for UNESCO World Heritage status for Madain Saleh – which was finally granted in July – the government in Riyadh wrote that Station 21 “has been carefully restored for future use for cultural activities and to service the [Madain Saleh] site.”

But thistles grow through the few corroded stretches of track that remain. In the workshop that houses the single locomotive, not a single window pane remains unbroken, and spray-can-wielding vandals have defaced the steam engine with graffiti. The building’s state of disrepair points to just how much work tourism officials have cut out for them as they embark on a multi-billion-dollar drive to develop tourism in the kingdom, a strategy officials say could generate $650 million worth of revenue within five years and 60,000 jobs over the next two decades.

Worth the trouble? As in Petra, its sister city 440 kilometers to the north, the original inhabitants of Madain Saleh hewed ornate “palaces” (graves, actually) by hand into pink sandstone cliffs two millennia ago. It’s an awe-inspiring site – a mélange of Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian and Pharaonic styles – and one that Saudi tourism officials are understandably keen to promote. After all, veteran travelers have often listed Petra as one of the global must-sees alongside the likes of the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal. Comparatively few visitors brave the searing desert heat to see Madain Saleh, so similar to Petra, albeit less breathtaking in size.

And why would they, considering the obstacles? Obtaining a Saudi tourist visa is difficult, and for women under 40 traveling without a father or husband, outright impossible. Solo travelers and couples are also ineligible, since applications are only accepted for groups of three or more that sign up with recognized tour operators in the kingdom. Even business travelers to the kingdom require reams of paperwork to obtain a visa, and denials are routinely issued for no apparent reason. If you do manage to get in, the closest airports, Hail and Madinah, are more than 300 kilometers from Madain Saleh, and there are only two serviceable hotels nearby. Finally, to visit the site itself you need to arrange for a permit ahead of time.

At his office in Riyadh, over 1,000 kilometers away, Fahad bin IS al-Jarboa, assistant deputy secretary general and head of marketing at the General Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (GCTA), admits that tourism infrastructure in the kingdom remains woefully underdeveloped, especially outside the main metropolitan areas. “You’ve been to Madain Saleh,” he says. “You see that there are still many things you require for a place like that to be hospitable. But that doesn’t mean we are not doing anything to make more it more accessible and more inviting – to local as well as international tourists.”

It doesn’t help that the GCTA’s current annual budget of $9.3m is one-third of the amount called for in the country’s general tourism strategy. “It’s not enough,” al-Jarboa says. His agency makes do by targeting Saudi families and local expats with a marketing campaign that aims to raise the number of domestic trips taken each year – currently about 33 million. As a secondary target, the commission is trying to tap the spending power of GCC nationals by touting the diversity of the kingdom’s offerings – the seaside corniche in Jeddah, rural farms in Al Qassim, the holy sites in Mecca and Medina, the coral reefs of the Red Sea, the cool weather in Taif.

Compare this to the monotony of Gulf destinations, where activities consist of “the mall, the hotel, khalas (that’s all),” says al-Jarboa. “We are not positioning Saudi Arabia as a purely leisure destination like Dubai. We look at Saudi Arabia as a holiday destination that offers wider choices,” including cultural and historical sites like Madain Saleh and Qaryat al-Fau, an oasis stop for caravans on the ancient spice route.

Non-GCC travelers are a tertiary market, at this point, consisting mainly of “special interest” travelers such as archaeology hounds. But al-Jarboa rebuffs the suggestion that latching foreigners onto organized tour operators might cramp the style of travelers who want to explore the country on their own terms.

“Even with an organized tour operator, that doesn’t mean you don’t have enough time on your own,” he says. “That, I think, is up to the inbound and the outbound organizers, how they agree on the schedule. Who says you cannot have two days of free roaming around? That is not written, and that is not our requirement. Our requirement says that they have to be accountable.”

At your own risk. Authorities say that by requiring inbound tourists to stick with tour operators, they can maintain quality control in a sector that needs improvement. There is another reason, though; security. Early last year, assailants machine-gunned French tourists as they got out of their vehicle near Madain Saleh to go for a walk – reportedly to look for remnants of the Hejaz Railway. Two died at the scene and two later from their wounds. The interior ministry said Waleed ibn Mutlaq al-Radadi, a militant opposed to the presence of foreigners on Arabian soil, masterminded the attack. Al-Radadi, whom authorities connected to the domestic Al Qaeda uprising that started in 2003 and which had largely been crushed by the end of 2006, was later killed in a shoot-out with security forces near Medina.

Tourism officials will argue that the 2007 attack was an aberration – and indeed, it had been the only attack on foreigners since 2004. But it puts into perspective the inconvenience of having the police tagging along on one’s desert adventures.

Sadly for the Saudi tourism sector, many travelers will see it as yet another reason to stick to the well-worn paths of Petra.

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