Saudi Arabia opens itself up to foreign tourists very slowly, but still with conservations and rigid rules intact.
The kingdom will soon begin issuing traveller visas for the first time in its history, including the Australians, opening up one of the last frontiers of global tourism.
Falling oil prices and a desire to embrace modernity has pushed tourism to the forefront of the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, which is a blueprint to prepare the biggest Arab economy for the post-oil era.
Saudi officials announced last month that electronic visas would be made available to “all nationals whose countries allow their citizens to visit” by the end of March. Their hope is to double the annual number of visitors to 30 million by 2030.
Tourism is expected to be on the agenda of the Crown Prince Mohammed when he visits London this month.
Riyadh is preparing for a change. Work is nearly complete on an 85-station metro line, the country’s first ever public transport network. Multiplex cinemas, returning to the kingdom after a 30-year ban, are springing up across the capital. A 500-square-kilometre “entertainment city” featuring a safari and theme park will open in 2021.
Jarrod Kyte, of the UK-based travel agency Steppes, said, “Because Saudi has been behind closed doors for so long, people have become incredibly curious. They want to tick off the most conservative country on Earth. Once the kingdom begins granting tourist visas to the UK – which we’re told will be very soon – we’ll have no shortage of people wanting to go.”
Package tours will include some of the world’s least-explored heritage sites, including Mada’in Saleh, home to the best preserved Nabataean tombs, Al-‘Ula, a 2000-year-old ghost town made of stone and mud, and Sakaka, listed by UNESCO for its ancient standing stones. The kingdom also plans to turn 50 islands on the pristine Red Sea coastline into luxury resorts to rival Middle East hotspots such as Dubai and Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt.
However, cultural sensibilities would be preserved and guidebooks would be handed over to tourists to know what is appropriate and what are banned.
The ultra-conservative country, notorious for gender segregation and strict Islamic dress code, is still seen as an unlikely destination for tourists. Social and religious mores can be further complicated. In an effort to change perceptions, the royal court has relaxed some of its most rigid regulations, allowing gender-mixed sporting events and permitting women to drive from June. Single foreign females over the age of 25 will be allowed to travel to the kingdom without a male guardian.
The 32-year-old crown prince has vowed to destroy extremist ideologies and install in the country “a more moderate Islam”.