Saudi Arabia warming to tourism, but will it open up enough?

Saudi Arabia warming to tourism, but will it open up enough?
Saudi Arabia is a land of sun, sea and sand, and now Riyadh is looking to capitalise on this by opening the country up to tourism.
2 min read
29 October, 2017
Saudi will soon be open for tourism business, local media has claimed [AFP]


A trip to Saudi Arabia might not be on many bucket lists, but changes are afoot to encourage tourists to the reclusive kingdom.

Riyadh policy makers are looking at creating a more inviting environment for visitors by freeing up some of the more conservative social constraints that have been influenced by the country's Wahhabi ulama.

Next year, women will be able to drive in Saudi Arabia, while the powers of the country's notorious religious police have been greatly curtailed.

Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has unveiled plans for Red Sea holiday resorts that will be accompanied by more liberal laws that - should - allow women to forego the obligatory abaya dress at the beach.

There are also promises of new entertainment facilities, theme parks, cinemas, concerts and water parks, which it is hoped will attract foreign tourists.

Riyadh has gone to great efforts to promote historical sites such as the Nabatean desert complex of Madain Saleh to international markets.

All that was missing from seeing the dream realised was, well, tourist visas.

That hurdle looks set to be overcome, as Saudi newspaper al-Watan revealed on Saturday that the government had approved of a tourist visa programme which will be rolled out shortly.

These will not be available for independent travellers with visas only obtainable through government-authorised tour operators.

Previously, travellers could enter Saudi Arabia on transit and limited two week visas, but these were notoriously difficult to obtain and extremely expensive, putting them out of reach of most tourists.

A more wide-spread tourist visas programme has been under discussion for years in Riyadh political circles while the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage was set up in 2000. Hopes of opening up the country to tourism were dogged with delays.

The sudden changes are part of the powerful crown prince's plans to open up the secluded kingdom to foreign investors.

Many in Riyadh now understand it will unable to bring in the same revenues from oil as before due to a glut in the market and cheap green energy alternatives.

After years of economic decline, Saudi Arabia's leadership also know a dangerous slip in living standards could lead to dangerous consequences for the country's rich and powerful.

Foreign investment and tourism riyals will be essential to the survival of the House of Saud, government supporters have said.