LEFT: Prince Sultan Bin Salman admits it's hard to draw tourists to Saudi Arabia. RIGHT: The highway between Riyadh and the Persian Gulf is empty desert except for roadside phones and a few service stations.
By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 21, 2002
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Prince Sultan Bin Salman has what might seem an impossible job: getting tourists to visit a place where the temperature hits 115 degrees, you can't buy a beer and the two most famous cities are barred to non-Muslims.
It is a challenge, agrees the prince, a former fighter pilot and space shuttle astronaut who heads the country's new tourism commission.
"Saudi Arabia cannot be tourism as usual," he says. "We have the eyes of Saudi society and the Muslim world upon us. A lot of Muslims would happily accept many things in their own countries but not in Saudi Arabia because this is the birthplace of Islam."
Still, the prince insists, Saudi Arabia has plenty to offer the visitor who wants to "totally experience some other culture."
Covering an area a fourth the size of the continental United States, Saudi Arabia has a surprisingly diverse topography. There's plenty of desert -- including the vast Empty Quarter in the south -- but there also are mountains, valleys and Red Sea beaches with turquoise water known for some of the world's finest diving.
The country also is rich in archaeological sites, including the spectacular tombs and dwellings carved into sandstone 2,000 years ago by the Nabateans (the same lost civilization that created Petra in neighboring Jordan).
But in a country so huge and newly developed, many places are hard to reach and lack basic tourist facilities. The Nabatean ruins, for example, are a four-hour drive from Medina, the nearest city with an airport.
"We need a lot of infrastructure development," the prince notes.
The Supreme Commission for Tourism was created two years ago as part of the effort to diversify Saudi Arabia's economy, almost totally dependent on oil. Much of the country's wealth is invested abroad -- an estimated $700-billion in the United States -- and the prince would like to see some of that money return home to build hotels, roads and other things needed for a tourism industry.
He acknowledges, though, that the Saudi bureaucracy is a powerful disincentive to investment.
"It's totally disorganized. There's too much duplication. To get a license you have to go to five different organizations and spend a year chasing a license. It should take only a few days. This is going to be a challenge -- to clean up the system."
Another impediment, he says, is the Saudi school schedule. He wants more Saudis to vacation in their country, but as soon as school ends each June, thousands immediately head to the United States and Europe, taking $15-billion with them.
"Kids are out of school for three months in the hottest time of the year. It's an invitation to go away."
Yet the prince remains optimistic. If everything comes together, he says, tourism could create up to 1.7-million jobs in the next 20 years. Many of those could be filled by Saudis, whose unemployment rate has hit 30 percent.
The prince, who speaks fluent English, was a well-connected choice to head the commission. He is the grandson of Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia; the son of Prince Salman, the governor of Riyadh; and the nephew of King Fahd.
Now 46, Sultan was educated in the United States, where he earned a master's of business administration from Syracuse University. He got his pilot's license from a flight school in Florida and in 1985 became the first Arab and first Muslim to fly on a U.S. space shuttle.
Looking down at Earth from Discovery convinced him that "it's a very small planet" whose inhabitants must work together to preserve their environment and heritage. An avid pilot, he often gets in his Cessna and visits archaeological sites throughout the kingdom to make sure they are not being destroyed by vandalism or neglect.
In his time at the helm, the prince has assembled a staff of men and women who work in a striking new complex designed to look like the 350-year-old mud-walled palaces outside Riyadh. The commission also has sought advice from tourism experts in 20 other countries.
(The tourism chief in Ireland, whose residents are known to enjoy a pint or two, predicted visitors would come despite the Muslim ban on alcoholic beverages. "It would be a chance to dry out for many people," the prince jokes.)
Every year, Saudi Arabia draws some 2-million outside visitors, but the vast majority are Muslims making the required pilgrimage to Mecca, birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed. Only Muslims are allowed there and in Medina, Islam's second-holiest city.
The annual number of non-Muslim visitors is a paltry 6,000 or so, most of them coming in tour groups organized by Saudi Arabian Airlines. This is not a place for backpackers -- no one can enter the kingdom without a sponsor and women cannot move easily from city to city unless accompanied by a husband or male relative.
Prince Sultan says it is imperative for countries to keep a close eye on who is entering, as shown by the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States.
"We too are worried about interference by those who don't wish us well," he says. "You realize that in the United States now. You have an incredible network of tracking and reporting on people that's impinging in a big way on their rights and lives. America today is not the same America I enjoyed."
Despite the obstacles, the prince thinks Americans and other non-Muslims can have a fine time in Saudi Arabia as long as they accept that they're in a radically different culture.
"We have focused on value tourism, reasonable prices, good facilities, first-class treatment from the minute they get there until the minute they leave.
"The challenge is also to make tourism fun. If tourism is not fun it's like a hospital meal -- healthy, clean, wholesome and it may help grow muscles -- but you won't want to do it again."
- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.