Sunday, September 07, 2003

Let’s Open Doors for Tourists

Dr. Khaled M. Batarfi

Those in Saudi Arabia who demand price management for tourist services so that they can compete with neighboring countries forget that in an open, free market, you simply cannot do that.
The only solution is to open all doors for tourism as a sustainable industry, not as a seasonal or occasional one. As long as our tourism season only runs for two months during summer holidays, service providers will continue to depend on the revenue of 8 weeks to cover their overhead and maintain their facilities the rest of the year.
The cost will, naturally, be passed on to the customer. No way can we compete with countries that run their investments most of the time and distribute their costs over longer periods and higher rates of use.
One of many problems facing this challenged industry in Saudi Arabia is limiting tourism to certain seasons. In winter, when the weather is delightful in most regions, few people are able to travel around because schools close during summer holidays only.
The door is also closed to foreign tourists who would love to enjoy swimming, tanning and water sports in our warm seas in fall and winter, and all-year activities like mountaineering, hiking, car racing, and conferences.
If we were to encourage year-round tourism, we should foster tourism projects in regions that are in great need of investment and work opportunities. Just imagine the crowd if we established schools for mountain sports in Abha, recreation facilities in Al-Baha or Al-Ahsa, or if we turned small ports like Rabigh on the Red Sea and Al-Qateef on the Gulf into free trade zones.
I thought these ideas were brand-new when I addressed a conference last month in Abha that discussed the challenges facing the future of Saudi tourism, but, to my surprise, I found that the host, tourism pioneer Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, Governor of Asir, has already campaigned for similar ideas.
If so, what stands in the way of realizing these dreams? The answer I reached after listening to investors’ complaints can be summarized in two words: Red tape.
As long as rules and regulations do not encourage and support investment projects with grants and loans, and do not shield investors from maddening bureaucracy, and as long as we continue to complicate visa procedures instead of facilitating them, we will never be able to compete with investment-hospitable countries like the United Arab Emirates, Yemen and Egypt.
If we don’t move now, the prices we complain about will continue to burn us every season and we will always look for an escape to overseas havens to enjoy a more merciful summer.
- Arab News Opinion 7 September 2003

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