DAMMAM, 25 November 2006 — Indian authorities must do more to market their world-class tourist destinations like Kerala in a more aggressive manner in order to attract a large number of tourists, especially from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. This was stressed by Khaled Almaeena, editor in chief of Arab News, while inaugurating the Kerala Business Meet at Sheraton Hotel here on Thursday. “Kerala as a tourist destination is not sold properly,” he told the conference attended by a number of Saudi and Indian businessmen and executives. “Many people in this part of the world are not aware of tourist resorts in the state. I have fallen in love with Kerala after my first visit and would like to visit again,” Almaeena said recalling his happy moments in Kerala when he visited the south Indian state last year. “The state’s beauty, especially its marvelous backwaters and lush greenery, was enthralling. The state’s hospitable, courteous and friendly people also impressed me. They are well-educated, disciplined and organized.” Almaeena’s comments were met with applause from a large gathering of top Keralite executives. He also urged authorities in Kerala to put in greater efforts to protect the state’s marvelous beauty and salubrious environment and spoke about the state’s high literacy rate (99 percent) and how it played a major role in promoting communal harmony, setting a good example for the whole of India. “Education cleans the minds of people,” he said, referring to how illiteracy combined with the lack of opportunities can lead to dangerous forms of ignorance anywhere in the world. He then urged Saudis to discover India and its vast tourist attractions, to help foster stronger local economies through the travel and leisure industry. “After 9/11, the US and Europe enforced travel restrictions, and Saudis are increasingly looking for tourist destinations in Asia,” he said. Almaeena also said that Saudi businessmen would be happy to invest in Kerala’s tourism and information technology industries. In his welcome address, Abdullah Al-Saihati, chairman of Saihati Group and chief patron of Orion Sargam, expressed his confidence that the Indo-Saudi Tourism Mart would increase the flow of tourists between the two countries. He also expected tremendous cooperation between the Kerala Tourism Department and the Kingdom’s Supreme Commission of Tourism (SCT). “Orion Sargam will be in the forefront to facilitate and boost this cooperation,” he said. Referring to the longstanding historic relations between Arabs and the Indians, Al-Saihati said that as part of the spice route that connected East with West, India and the Arabian Peninsula have shared historic links since time immemorial. The spread of Islam, especially during the Middle Ages, helped strengthen a bond that endures to this day. He said the visit of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah to New Delhi in January this year has ushered a new era in Indo-Saudi relations. He also spoke about the Saudi government’s efforts to promote domestic tourism, especially in the Eastern Province. “King Abdullah is supporting tourism all over the Kingdom,” he added. Rajeev Shahare, deputy chief of the mission at the Indian Embassy, emphasized Kerala’s tremendous tourism potentials and pledged the embassy’s full support to promote Kerala as a major tourist destination in India. “Kerala is the best state for package tourism, and it has tremendous potentials for ecological and medical tourism,” he said and referred to the ayurvedic medical services that abound in the state. He welcomed Saudi tourists to India and said they would find it as their second home. “When King Abdullah visited India, he said India is ‘my second home’ and I hope that all Saudi tourists visiting India would say the same,” Shahare said. Khaled Saad Al-Nasser, chairman of the tourism committee at the Eastern Province Chamber of Commerce and Industry, spoke about his personal experiences when he visited India as part of the delegation that accompanied King Abdullah. He said the tourism mart had convinced him to place Kerala among his future tourist destinations. “I am also impressed by Indian President Abdul Kalam, especially by his strategy of talking to young people,” he said. “Our leaders should also do the same to achieve progress.” Al-Nasser spoke about his committee’s efforts to promote tourism in the region. “We have a lot of natural and historical resources,” he said. “We have a lot to present to the world. We also encourage our own people to get acquainted with their Kingdom,” he said, citing one of the country’s most well known icons: The Rub Al-Khali, the Empty Quarter. But after he cited the sand dunes that comprise much of the southeastern portion of the country, he mentioned Saudi Arabia’s vast ecological diversity. (Few outsiders are aware, for example, that the lush, highland city of Abha in the southeast can receive a light dusting of snow in the winter months.) Al-Nasser emphasized the need to liberalize the Kingdom’s regulations for promoting tourism. The Kingdom recently emphasized that general public photography is legal. Al-Nasser said Saudi Arabia can model its tourism development efforts on others: “We are going to learn a lot from the Kerala tourism experience.” Rafeek Younus, president of Orion Sargam, thanked Arab News for making the event a grand success. He described Almaeena as an ambassador for Kerala tourism. Younus emphasized his organization’s determination to hold similar programs in future with the support of Saudi authorities. In this regard, he noted the cooperation received from Prince Abdul Aziz ibn Fahd, chairman of the Eastern Province Tourism Organization. Anita Pratap, a well-known journalist from Kerala (and the only woman to attend the meeting) gave a fantastic speech enumerating Kerala’s multifarious attractions that earned it the title: “God’s Own Country.” Pratap said Saudis would love to see the state’s enchanting greeneries. “I know how much Saudis love vegetation and greenery,” she said. “I have seen them spending a lot of money and efforts to establish farms and gardens in the desert. Kerala is the greenest state in India and is located just four hours flying time, compared to Ireland or other Western destinations.” Pratap said everything a tourist wanted is available in Kerala. “We have golden backwaters, splendid wildlife, mysterious mountains, enchanting coral reefs and wonderful art forms,” she said. She also spoke highly about Kerala’s healthy and nutritious cuisine. “I could be accused of partiality, but after having tasted dishes from around the world, I am convinced that no cuisine is as nutritious and delicious as Kerala cuisine,” she said. “Unlike north Indian food that is heavy in oil, cream and powdered masala (blend of mixed spices), Kerala food is light with minimum use of oil and garnished with plenty of natural herbs and spices such as garlic, ginger, onions, curry leaves, cardamom and a variety of seeds that provide essential nutrients to the body,” she said. “Our food is not only delicious, but also therapeutic.” Pratap also highlighted Kerala’s medical tourism facilities and said Saudis would find world-class health facilities in the state at cheaper rates compared to Western countries. Kerala supplies some of the world’s best doctors and nurses, she said. B. Suman, director general of Kerala Tourism, gave a presentation titled “Kerala, God’s Own Country Where Business Blooms” and narrated business and investment opportunities in the state. He said Kerala had won India’s Best Tourist State Award six times and is one of the 50-must-see tourist destinations in the world. He said nearly 350,000 international tourists visited Kerala in 2005, spending an average of 16 days. Annual tourism growth in the state is estimated at 11.6 percent against 10.2 percent of Turkey. He noted the Kerala government’s efforts to market tourism and carry out tourism projects in partnership with the private sector. “We offer special incentives and packages for foreign direct investment, including electricity concession for five years,” Suman said. At present there are 8,166 hotel rooms in Kerala, which are all booked during the high tourism season, he said. “There are also prospects for high-quality specialist hospitals,” he added. “We have a plan to establish a holistic health care center where all types of health services including naturopathic, ayurvedic and allopathic treatment will be available under one roof. An international hospitality management institution in Alappuzha is another project we are promoting,” Suman said. Other areas offered for investment are: Amusement parks, shopping complexes, transport services, houseboats, luxury boats and water sports. The three-day tourism mart ended yesterday with an Indian food festival and Saudi-Indian cultural programs at the Prince Muhammad bin Fahd Park on Halfmoon Beach. A number of Saudi and Indian artists took part in the cultural programs, which included folklore dances and mimes.