By James B. Smith
Some of my most lasting impressions as US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia have come from discussions with Saudis, often young Saudis, who have just returned from their first trip to the United States. During these conversations, people consistently tell me that visiting the United States helped them to better understand and appreciate the country and its culture. The same is true for my experience in Saudi Arabia. Although I had always been fascinated by Saudi Arabia, it was my first visit in 1991 that helped me to feel a connection to the culture and people of the Kingdom. This is the power of travel. The experience of tourism, both traveling abroad and hosting visitors, enriches our cultures and fosters mutual understanding. For your next international vacation, I encourage you to visit the United States.
President Barack Obama has made facilitating tourism to the United States a priority for the Department of State. While speaking at Disney World in Orlando, Florida, President Obama said, “Look at where we are. We have the most entertaining destinations in the world, and this is the land of extraordinary natural wonders.” “We want to welcome you,” he said, calling on international travelers to visit the United States. In 2010, the United States hosted around 60 million international visitors. From the pristine beaches of California to the bustling streets of New York City, the United States offers diverse tourist attractions that can suit any interest.
There has never been a better time for the people of Saudi Arabia to visit the United States. The consular section at our embassy in Riyadh and the consulates in Jeddah and Dhahran are processing visas at the fastest rate in years. Last year, 94 percent of Saudi visa applications to the United States were approved, and 75 percent of visas were finished within one week. We issued over 100,000 visas to Saudis last year, and Okaz newspaper quoted a travel agent as saying that 70 percent of his bookings were for flights to the United States. This is an exciting achievement for relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia. By making it easier to interact with one another, we are investing in the future of this relationship. America’s doors are open, and to our Saudi friends we say, “Ahlan Wasahlan!”
In particular, I encourage you to visit our national parks. The national parks system in the United States includes almost 400 sites and around 34 million hectares. Yellowstone, which stretches into three states, was established in 1872, making it the world’s first national park. The parks offer unparalleled natural beauty and a glimpse at what the continent looked like before the founding of the United States. In addition to the parks, the system includes monuments and historic sites, such as Civil War battlefields. Growing up in Georgia, my family and I made frequent trips to the national parks, and I will always remember those visits fondly.
During my time in Saudi Arabia, I have been excited to see the work of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities to enhance and promote tourism in Saudi Arabia. As home to one of the largest annual gatherings of people in the world, the Haj, Saudi Arabia is a leading destination for religious tourism. Every year, over 10,000 American Muslims come to Saudi Arabia to fulfill this essential pillar of their faith. The Commission has been working to expand tourism opportunities in Saudi Arabia and has achieved exciting results. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), some destinations in Saudi Arabia continue to see an increase in visitors, despite the decreasing numbers of tourists in the broader Middle East. These visitors create jobs and boost the Saudi economy. The Kingdom’s mountain valleys are some of the most majestic in the world, and the waters of the Red Sea are famous for offering some of the world’s finest diving opportunities. The World Heritage Sites, Madain Saleh and the At-Turaif District in Dir’iyah, offer a fascinating view of ancient cultures.
When people visit Saudi Arabia, they understand the country and its people in a way that cannot be obtained through simply reading about it. During our explorations, my family and I have been amazed at the beauty of the country and the hospitality of its people. We are still making new discoveries, and I always encourage Americans to visit Saudi Arabia. In order to create greater understanding and strengthen the US-Saudi relationship, the people of the United States and Saudi Arabia must continue visiting each others’ countries.
(James B. Smith is the United States Ambassador to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.)