Saudi Arabia seeks place on tourist map with ambitious foreign visitor push
من الصحافة اخترنا لكم
For centuries, Muslims believed the rock-cut tombs of Hegra were the ruins of an ancient civilisation cursed by God for its hubris. Unless they bowed their heads and wept, tradition said, visitors might meet the same fate.
The Unesco site, and nearby AlUla, where visitors can stay in luxury chalets nestled between the cliffs, are among the crown jewels of an ambitious project to turn the kingdom better known for oil and its strict adherence to conservative Islam into a tourist and entertainment hub.
Saudi Arabia wants to lure 100mn visitors annually by the end of the decade. It already welcomes millions of people to the Muslim pilgrim sites of Mecca and Medina, and saw a surge in domestic tourism during the pandemic, when those who typically travelled abroad spent their vacations at home.
But the country has never been on the list of traditional tourism destinations. And despite its ambitions, questions remain about whether the deeply conservative kingdom, where alcohol is forbidden and unmarried couples theoretically face prosecution, can compete with the party vibe of Dubai or the mix of beaches and history found in Egypt.
“Saudi Arabia’s tourism ambitions have a lot to work with, but there’s still a lot of work to do,” said Robert Mogielnicki, a political economist and senior non-resident fellow with the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
The tourism drive is part of Saudi Arabia’s efforts to diversify its economy away from oil revenues. It has coincided with social reforms that have allowed women to drive, introduced mixed-gender events such as concerts and curbed the role of the country’s religious police.
Planned projects include a luxury complex spanning more than 20 Red Sea islands, with a soft launch set for later this year. Saudi Arabia also describes its planned Neom development as “the world’s most ambitious tourism project”.
In the capital Riyadh, the Al-Diriyah Gate project has been built on the site where the ruling al-Saud family conquered and united the country. The project, which the government claims will become “one of the world’s great gathering places”, includes a Unesco heritage site, hotels and fine dining restaurants. Much of the work on the various projects is being financed by the kingdom’s $600bn Public Investment Fund.
“The tourism ambitions are attached to these big projects,” Mogielnicki said, adding that turning them into reality was “going to be the most difficult hill to climb”. Of the challenges the Saudis faced, he added: “Not only is the goal to bring in lots of people, but then you have the feasibility of the projects themselves and the infrastructure.”
Tourism minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb said the aim was to lift the sector’s contribution to gross domestic product from 3 per cent to 10 per cent by 2030, and for tourism to provide one in 10 jobs in the country. “Which means we need to create 1mn jobs in 10 years,” he told the Financial Times.
As part of this, incentives are being offered to airlines while visas, previously difficult to obtain, are electronically available for nationals from almost 50 countries, including the US and UK. Anticipating the new arrivals, Al-Khateeb’s ministry is training 100,000 Saudis a year to serve in the sector, some at culinary and hospitality schools abroad.
Advertisements for the projects flood social media, and the country has invited influencers to promote them. Yet attracting visitors will be far from straightforward.
Saudi Arabia’s image has been tarnished, particularly in the west, by its reputation for human rights abuses, with convicted prisoners executed and long sentences handed down to Saudis who criticised the authorities. At least 147 people were executed in the country last year, according to Reprieve, a human rights group. Some visiting Instagrammers have been criticised on social media for ignoring the problems.
Privately, Saudi officials are under no illusion that they can compete with Dubai or Egypt any time soon. Their hope is that the Red Sea resorts can initially attract Saudis who usually vacation abroad and visitors from other Gulf countries.
Saudi Arabia recorded 67mn visitors, including domestic and religious tourists, in 2021, according to official figures. Kuwait, India, Egypt, Pakistan, Qatar and Bahrain were their main countries of origin, and one tourism official acknowledged that it would be a while before western or East Asian tourists showed interest in significant numbers.
One problem the authorities face is the absence of alcohol. Rumours have been rife for years that resorts and special economic zones would one day permit alcohol but the topic remains hugely controversial in the birthplace of Islam.
Officials privately concede it will eventually happen, quietly and discreetly, just as the authorities have turned a blind eye to the drinking of alcohol in gated compounds populated by westerners.
A “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach has been adopted for tourist couples who legally should be married to share a room. The government has also moved to criminalise “damaging the reputation of the tourism industry” in an effort to discourage critics from posting pictures of bikini-clad sunbathers that would likely enrage conservatives.
Another issue is that, while Saudi Arabia has high-end hotels, the wider tourism infrastructure is lacking. Moving around Riyadh, where there is no metro system and taxis are few and notoriously fickle, can be frustrating. The government has vowed to develop both the infrastructure and labour market to service tourists.
For now, the small numbers of western tourists who do make their way to Saudi Arabia are usually the more adventurous types. Filippo Amone, an Italian economist visiting the ruins of AlUla with his girlfriend, said they had found the site on the internet and decided to see it for themselves.
“We’re the kind of couple who prefer to visit places where we find new things and learn,” he said.