There are strict rules governing social conduct, little tolerance for dissent, allegations of human rights abuses abound, and the country found itself subject to global condemnation last year after the gruesome killing of the dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi by operatives at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.
But the Saudi authorities clearly believe that the country’s attractions can outweigh those concerns.
Ahmed al-Khateeb, Saudi Arabia’s tourism chief, said in a statement that opening the kingdom to international tourists was “a historic moment for our country”.
Visitors will be surprised and delighted by the treasures we have to share.
Saudi Arabian tourism chief Ahmed al-Khateeb
The statement noted that the country hoped tourism would form up to 10 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s annual gross domestic product, compared with the current 3 per cent, and that “billions of dollars are being spent to improve infrastructure and develop heritage, cultural and entertainment sites.”
Travellers from eligible countries are able to apply for a multiple-entry visa that is valid for one year and would allow tourists to spend up to 90 days in the country. Details about the visas were announcemed on Friday evening local time at an event in Diriyah, home to the first capital of the Saudi dynasty and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“Visitors will be surprised and delighted by the treasures we have to share,” al-Khateeb said in a statement, citing the country’s five world heritage sites and “a vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty.”
The kingdom opened applications for online tourist visas yesterday Saturday with aims to become one of the top five tourism destinations in the world, Al-Khateeb told Bloomberg. It was not clear when the first visitors under the new program are expected to arrive.
Al-Khateeb told Reuters that abayas — the body-shrouding robes that must be worn in public by Saudi women — would not be mandatory for female foreign tourists but that modest dress would be required, including at public beaches.
He also noted that there would no exception to allow the consumption of alcohol by tourists, expressing confidence that the country had enough attractions for tourists “to enjoy other things.”
Adam Coogle, who researches Saudi Arabia for Human Rights Watch, said that Saudi Arabia had long been considering a broader approach to tourism as “part of a series of other steps that are being taken to make international investment in Saudi Arabia little more palatable to international investors and companies.”
“They are trying to sort of create the narrative and the permission structure for companies to invest in the country on the pretext that the country is reforming,” he said.
The country has approved major reforms — particularly around women’s rights, entertainment and tourism — but they have been limited to certain sectors.
“There’s still a long way to go obviously, none of this has translated to reforms in terms of political and civil rights,” he said. “And it won’t.”
Coogle also warned that any visitor to the country would have to be careful about discussing anything that would be deemed politically sensitive, because it is not a country that allows free expression.
Saudi Arabia already welcomes millions of religious pilgrims each year — more than 1.8 million people visited Mecca in August alone to take part in the hajj, the annual pilgrimage that is one of Islam’s most holy rites.
Mecca and the holy city of Medina are currently the biggest draw for foreigners, but non-Muslims have long been prohibited from entering both, a policy that predates the founding of the Saudi state. Presumably only Muslim tourists would have access to the sites, but that has not been confirmed.
The tourism authority introduced a sleek English language website before the announcement and unveiled a social media campaign — called “Where in the World?”— that features sweeping views of Saudi Arabia’s landscape, encouraging visitors to “be the first to explore an exciting new destination.”
The website has a section devoted to the “laws and etiquette” of the nation, which it says are “informed by our cultural heritage and Islamic religion” and includes guidance for how to dress and act in public. Buying, selling or consuming alcohol are all prohibited, the website makes clear.
“Both men and women are asked to dress modestly in public, avoiding tightfitting clothing or clothes with profane language or images,” the guidance adds. “Women should cover shoulders and knees in public.”
Prince Mohammed has guided his country to a more moderate form of Islam. Under his guidance, movie theaters have sprung up and the kingdom has hosted mixed-gender concerts and sporting events, all of which had been previously banned.
Last year, Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on female drivers, and this year, the government announced an easing of strict guardianship laws, which had been a focal point of international criticism.
Several of the women’s rights activists who demanded the lifting of the driving ban are still imprisoned, however, and have reportedly been tortured.
- Saudi Arabia’s female athletes hoping to shine at London Olympics but fear a backlash at home
- Saudi Arabia beheaded 157 people in 2015, most executions in 20 years
- Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah dead at 90, ruled country for nearly a decade
- ISIS-affiliated group claims responsibility for bombing of Saudi Arabia mosque that killed 15 people
- Saudi Arabia's economy by the numbers
- Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warns Saudi Arabia of 'divine revenge' over cleric's execution
- Obama defends U.S. ties as he pays respects in Saudi Arabia
- Crackdown in Saudi Arabia shows prince tightening grip on power, experts say
- Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and UAE cut diplomatic ties to Qatar
- Saudi Arabia cuts diplomatic ties to Iran after executions, embassy fire