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Saudi Arabia seeks a place on tourist map with ambitious foreign visitor push

For centuries, Muslims considered the rock-cut tombs of Hegra to be the ruins of an ancient civilization cursed by God for its arrogance. According to tradition, if they do not bow their heads and cry, the visitors may suffer the same fate.

The UNESCO site and nearby Al Ula, where visitors can stay in luxurious chalets nestled between cliffs, are among the gems of an ambitious project to turn a kingdom better known for its oil and its strict adherence to conservative Islam into a tourist and entertainment hub. .

Saudi Arabia wants to attract 100 million visitors annually by the end of the decade. It already hosts millions of people at Muslim pilgrimage sites in Mecca and Medina, and has seen a surge in domestic tourism during the pandemic, with those who would normally travel abroad holidaying at home.

But the country has never been on the list of traditional tourist destinations. And despite its ambitions, questions remain about whether the deeply conservative kingdom, where alcohol is banned and unmarried couples theoretically face prosecution, can compete with Dubai’s party vibe or Egypt’s mix of beaches and history.

“Saudi Arabia’s tourism ambitions require a lot of work, but there is still a lot to be done,” said Robert Mogelnicki, a political economist and senior visiting fellow at the Gulf Arab Institute in Washington.

Tourism development is part of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to diversify the economy away from oil revenues. This coincided with social reforms that allowed women to drive, introduced mixed events such as concerts, and limited the role of the country’s religious police.

Planned projects include a luxury complex spanning more than 20 Red Sea islands, scheduled to launch later this year. Saudi Arabia also describes Neom’s planned development as “the world’s most ambitious tourism project”.

In the capital Riyadh, the Al-Diriya Gate project was built on the site where the ruling al-Saud family conquered and unified the country. The project, which the government says will be “one of the world’s great meeting places,” includes a UNESCO heritage site, hotels and gourmet restaurants. Most of the work on various projects is funded by the Kingdom’s $600 billion State Investment Fund.

“Tourist ambitions are linked to these big projects,” Mogelnitsky said, adding that their implementation “will be the most difficult climb.” Speaking of the challenges the Saudis are facing, he added: “The goal is not only to bring in a lot of people, but that you have the feasibility of the projects themselves and the infrastructure.”

Tourists sit outdoors at the Harrat Viewpoint in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia.
Tourists sit outdoors at Harrat Viewpoint in Al-Ula © Jeremy Suyker/Bloomberg

Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khatib said the goal is to increase the sector’s contribution to GDP from 3 percent to 10 percent of the economy by 2030, with tourism providing one in ten jobs in the country. “That means we need to create 1 million jobs in 10 years,” he told the Financial Times.

Benefits are being offered to airlines as part of this, and visas that were previously difficult to obtain are now available electronically for citizens of nearly 50 countries, including the US and the UK. Anticipating new arrivals, the Al-Khatib ministry is training 100,000 Saudis a year to work in the sector, some of them in culinary and hospitality schools abroad.

Advertisements for the projects flooded social media, and the country invited influencers to promote them. However, attracting visitors will not be easy.

Saudi Arabia’s image has been tarnished, especially in the West, due to its reputation for human rights abuses, with convicts executed and Saudis who criticized the authorities sentenced to lengthy prison terms. At least 147 people were executed in the country last year, according to human rights group Reprieve. Some Instagram visitors have been criticized on social media for ignoring the issues.

Privately, Saudi officials have no illusions that they will be able to compete with Dubai or Egypt anytime soon. They hope that the Red Sea resorts will initially be able to attract Saudis, who usually holiday abroad, and visitors from other Gulf states.

According to official figures, 67 million people visited Saudi Arabia in 2021, including local and religious tourists. Kuwait, India, Egypt, Pakistan, Qatar and Bahrain were their main countries of origin, and one tourism official acknowledged that it would be some time before significant interest was shown by Western or East Asian tourists.

One of the problems the authorities face is the lack of alcohol. Rumors have swirled for years that resorts and special economic zones would one day allow alcohol, but the topic remains extremely controversial in Islam’s homeland.

Officials privately admit that this will eventually happen, quietly and unnoticed, just as the authorities turned a blind eye to drinking in gated communities populated by Westerners.

A “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach has been adopted for tourist couples who are legally required to be married in order to share a room. The government has also taken action to criminalize “damaging the reputation of the travel industry” to discourage critics from posting pictures of bikini sunbathers that are likely to infuriate conservatives.

Another issue is that while Saudi Arabia has high-end hotels, it lacks a broader tourism infrastructure. Getting around Riyadh, where there is no metro and taxis are few and notoriously fickle, can be frustrating. The government has promised to develop both the infrastructure and the labor market to serve tourists.

For now, the small number of Western tourists who head to Saudi Arabia tend to be more adventurous. Filippo Amone, an Italian economist who visited the ruins of Al-Ula with his girlfriend, said they found the site online and decided to see it for themselves.

“We are the kind of couples who prefer to visit places where we find something new and learn,” he said.

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