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Photo for illustrative purposes only. A Muslim couple takes a selfie as Muslim pilgrims circle the Kaaba at the Grand Mosque in Mecca September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah Malaysians Salaam Gateway spoke to identify Saudi Arabia as a religious, and not a holiday, destination. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
KUALA LUMPUR - Saudi Arabia plans to begin issuing tourist visas later this year as the kingdom opens to leisure tourism to attract 30 million international visitors by 2030 from the current 18 million mainly business travellers and pilgrims. Last year, around 300,000 Malaysians arrived in Saudi Arabia to perform either the haj or umrah. Will more be interested in the country as a holiday destination?
Malaysia and Saudi Arabia have enjoyed “good cooperation in the field of tourism”, to the point that the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding in 2016 to “enhance cooperation in the tourism sector through encouragement of joint promotional activities, collaboration in research and development, as well as joint training,” the Malaysian Ministry of Tourism and Culture told Salaam Gateway in a statement.
The MOU also includes data sharing, the joint organisation of meetings and conferences and the “encouragement of economic activities through tourism investment”. The cooperation is likely to be further strengthened when both parties meet this year.
“Both parties are scheduled to meet in 2018, most probably during fourth quarter the year, in Malaysia to discuss further the implementation arrangements of the potential programmes and activities,” the ministry added.
They will have their work cut out to coax the Malaysian market into matching the tourism industry’s optimism for the destination, especially when Saudi has little inbound tourist pedigree to speak of.
READ ABOUT SAUDI TOURISM PLANS
TOURISM INDUSTRY SAYS YES
Syed Mohd Razif bin Syed Yasin, chief executive of Sri Sutra travel agency in Kuala Lumpur, said the lure of Saudi Arabia as a destination will appeal to Malaysian tourists as many will have had their interest piqued after having visited the country for religious rites.
“Last year, Saudi gave about 260,000 visas to Malaysian umrah pilgrims and approximately 30,000 to those performing the haj. Because they can’t go beyond Jeddah, Medina and Mecca on these visas, I’m sure a lot of Muslims would now love to venture outside,” Syed Yasin told Salaam Gateway.
Syed Yasin, who has himself visited Saudi on four occasions for business and to perform umrah, believes that Muslims who have not performed the rites would still have read about Saudi locations of interest in the Quran.
“Saudi Arabia is rich in historic civilisation, and I’m sure [Malaysians] would like to experience this for themselves,” he added.
Other industry players have also been hailing the new visa, including the executive dean of Taylor University’s Faculty of Hospitality, Food & Leisure Management, who called the scheme “brilliant”.
“Although it is seen by many as a move for the kingdom to wean itself off its dependence on petrodollars, it opens a new door to the world of travel and tourism,” Dr Neethiahnanthan Ari Ragavan told Salaam Gateway.
“A general check by our faculty with the travel and tours industry in Malaysia found that this new action by the Saudi government [was seen] as a positive inclusion to Islamic tourism, especially in understanding its rich history, arts, heritage and culture.”
Ragavan added that the tourism visa would now open up “a new frontier of destinations” that had previously been undiscovered by most visitors.
MALAYSIANS SAY NOT REALLY
Though industry experts are excited about Saudi’s potential for outbound Malaysian tourists, it is harder to find Malaysians themselves who are sufficiently enthused to apply for a tourist visa.
Salaam Gateway approached more than two dozen Malaysians of all the country’s main races and religions, and was unable to find one that would consider visiting the country on holiday.
Responses varied from “not a chance, it’s hard enough going there for umrah”, to “why would I go to Saudi when there are many better place to go to that will be more welcoming to tourists?”.
Kuala Lumpur lawyer Mohamed Mohidin Hashim told Salaam Gateway: “Is there much to see in Saudi? I am quite ignorant as to the attraction it provides. It is entrenched in us that Saudi is a place of worship, except maybe now they will have resorts surrounding the oases. Personally, I would not go as a tourist.”
Liyana binti Jamaludin did not approve of Saudi’s plans to “let everyone in”, adding that she did not know anybody who would want to visit as a tourist.
“The place is sacred and holy to us, though I’m not a religious person,” the healthcare executive told Salaam Gateway. “But as a Muslim, Saudi is meant to be a place where you can pray to God and be religious. I don’t agree that they should let non-Muslims in. The place means something for us.”
She added: “I know the Saudis, the way they live their lives is very strict. I can imagine if you let anyone in—non-Muslims in—they would get a culture shock.”
Saudi will certainly be different from neighbouring Dubai, though this might be a key differentiation, according to travel agent Syed Yasin.
“As a Muslim country, there’s not going to be much entertainment in Saudi, but the country and the coast will be a big draw. Quiet tourism for families and tour groups is where I see it developing,” he said.
(Reporting by Richard Whitehead; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim firstname.lastname@example.org)
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