Saudis promised double the fun in 2018 drive to lure back tourist dollars

A tourists pulls a face at a camel during a beauty contest at the annual King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Rumah.
A tourists pulls a face at a camel during a beauty contest at the annual King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in Rumah. PHOTO: AFP

RIYADH (REUTERS) - Saudi Arabia will stage more than 5,000 shows, festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number of last year, as it shakes off its conservative image in a drive to keep tourist dollars at home and lure in visitors.

The state wants to capture up to a quarter of the US$20 billion (S$26 billion) currently spent overseas by Saudis seeking entertainment abroad, lifting a ban on cinemas and putting on shows by Western artists.

US rapper Nelly performed in Jeddah in December, albeit to a men-only crowd, and Greek musician Yanni played to a mixed-gender audience.

The gradual relaxing of gender segregation risks a backlash from religious conservatives but public objections to a wider programme of reforms have been more muted in recent months after several critics were arrested.

At an event to launch the 2018 entertainment calendar, Ahmed al-Khatib, chairman of the state-run General Entertainment Authority (GEA), said infrastructure investments over the next decade would reach 240 billion riyals (S$84.5 billion), including an opera house to be completed around 2022.

That will contribute 18 billion riyals to annual GDP and generate 224,000 new jobs by 2030, the GEA said.

"The bridge is starting to reverse," Khatib said, referring to the causeway linking Saudi Arabia with more liberal Bahrain where many Saudis flock for weekend getaways.

"And I promise you that we will reverse this migration, and people from Dubai, Kuwait and Bahrain will come to Saudi." The entertainment plans are largely motivated by economics, part of a reform programme to diversify the economy from oil and create new sectors to employ young Saudis.

The Vision 2030 plan aims to increase household spending on cultural and entertainment events inside the kingdom to 6 per cent by 2030 from 2.9 per cent.

"We are bringing the most exciting and famous events to Saudi Arabia this year," Khatib told Reuters in an interview, adding that state-sponsored entertainment events would be staged in 56 cities.

"We are creating new local events with local content," he said. "Almost 80 per cent of the calendar (events) are for families."

Saudi Arabia lifted a 35-year-old ban on cinemas late last year, with plans for regional and global chains to open more than 300 movie theatres by 2030. The first cinemas are expected to start showing films from March.

Last year the country announced plans to develop resorts on some 50 islands off the Red Sea coast and an entertainment city south of Riyadh featuring golf courses, car racing tracks and a Six Flags theme park.