Dammam, Asharq Al-Awsat- The Tourism Board of the Chamber of Commerce in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia has sponsored a number of events on the occasion of the 26th annual “Festival of the Eastern Province”, also known as “Al Wujhah al Sharqiyyah”, launched last month.
Asharq Al Awsat met the Chairman of the Board, Khaled al Nasser, who indicated his committee works closely with the Kingdom’s Tourism Higher Authority to encourage tourism in the Eastern region. Al Nasser added, “The Tourism Board is represented in the National Authority for the Hajj and Umrah which coordinated with the Saudi Higher Tourism Commission and contributes to programs such as “Discover the Kingdom” and other initiatives by travel agents.” As for whether the Eastern Region featured on the world tourist map, al Nasser said, “It is important to build a solid infrastructure first. The Tourism Board plays an important role in highlighting the landmarks of the area that might interest foreigners.” The Board, he added, was focusing on encouraging Saudis and Arabs to visit the region. One of the biggest challenges the Board faces was the general lack of awareness, amongst Saudis, of the tourist attractions around the Kingdom. He said, “Awareness begins in the early years of school. Students need to learn about sights in their regions and other parts of the country.” A project is currently underway, al Nasser noted, in cooperation between the Tourism Higher Authority and various departments affiliated with the ministry of Education to implement this.
Al Nasser told Asharq Al Awsat that promoting tourism for mere economic profit must never come at the expense of society. He said the authorities see “the role of popular heritage, the training of women, and the promotion of tourism compatible with local traditions as very important issues,” that need to be address for the sector to thrive.
As for the category of foreign tourists the government wants to attract, al Nasser said, “We hope to attract tourists interested in finding out about the Kingdom’s history and sights. It’s a small segment but a significant one.” Al Nasser spoke of a second type of tourist, “the businessman who visits Saudi Arabia for meetings and conferences.” It is imperative, the Chairman added, to facilitate visa procedures for foreigners intending on visiting the Kingdom. He expressed hope that a tourist visa scheme, currently under study, will come into place before long. The Chairman said that a unified visa scheme between Saudi Arabia and its neighbors would allow travel agents to organize regional trips so that a visitor could, if he wished, visit three countries in one day and enjoy breakfast in Kuwait, lunch in Khobar, and dinner in Doha, Qatar . Such a scheme he added, would encourage Arabs to visit friends and relatives. Medical tourism was another option currently being examined the authorities, al Nasser said.
According to al Nasser, the number of people who attended the 2005 the Eastern Province Festival was very high which meant sponsors were keen on taking part, to the extent that, “The Board had to turn down a few sponsorship offers.” Initial hotel figures showed around a million visitors this year, almost double last year’s figure. More than half came from the Eastern Province, 30% were Saudi nationals from around the Kingdom, and the rest were foreigners, from all segments of society. Exact figures were hard to come by, the Chairman said, as many visitors stayed with friends and relatives, and others, transiting through the area, would attend a few activities and leave. Al Nasser explained the organizers set up a toll free number so “visitors could call and know the time, location, and cost of each activity.” He also revealed, “Additional information was handed out at the King Fahd Airport in Dammam and on the highway to Riyadh . A program of all the activities was also distributed in hotels, shopping malls, and rented flats.”
The Festival included several cultural activities such as art fairs and exhibitions where men and women from the Eastern Province took part and displayed their work. The organizers faced a problem, al Nasser revealed, when trying to find sponsors of some activities, for example “plays that were commissioned but did not receive any backing”. Al Nasser confirmed several events to celebrate local heritage took place in cities across the region.
A list of the various events during the festival and other useful information was assembled into a tourist guide prepared by the Tourism Board and the marketing department of the region’s Chamber of Commerce, and distributed to all visitors. According to al Nasser, the guide lists the most prominent tourist attractions in Dammam, Khobar, and Dhahran such as beaches, islands, entertainment venues, sports grounds, shopping centers, as well as a map of the roads inside the cities and the ones leading to the capital, Mecca , and Medina , in addition to a list of pharmacies and hospitals.
The “26 th Eastern Province Summer” featured several events such as an exhibition on the discovery of oil and natural gas at Aramaco’s headquarters, a festival of spoken words at the Ittifak Club, an exhibition of local craftwork, a scooter race for adults in the HappyLand resort in Dhahran, an exhibition of pictures of the Arab horse in Khobar, a traditional village in al Qati, a skating tournament in Dammam, a dolphins show, a car race, an acrobatic show and other activities.