Saudi Arabia opens its gates to tourism, ever so slightly

Published July 12th, 2001 - 02:00 GMT

Now get this. As of June 25, foreigners living in Saudi Arabia became able to travel within the province of which they are resident, without having to obtain special travel documents. Before then, they could only move freely in the city in which they lived. 


This does not mean that Saudi Arabia’s foreign-born community has received a free reign to travel the length and breadth of the country. Far from it. This vast, almost two-million square-kilometer kingdom, is comprised of 13 provinces—meaning that, the despite the relative freedom just recently granted to foreigners, they still are extremely limited in where they can go and what they can see. To travel to another province, the foreign resident has to obtain travel documents from a sponsor. 


But in this massive, conservative and insular nation, the gradual opening to outsiders is nothing short of revolutionary. Indeed, Saudi Arabia not only refrained from encouraging incoming tourism, but for years went out of its way to prevent it. 


Even today, tourist visas are issued only for approved tour groups following organized itineraries. All visas require a sponsor, can take several months to process, and must be obtained prior to arrival. Furthermore, women visitors and residents are required to be met by their sponsor upon arrival.  


And if the visa requirements are not sufficiently restrictive, the economics of touring Saudi Arabia almost certainly is. Typically, a two-week trip—including return flight, hotel, restaurant and travel expenses within the country—will put the visitor back $7,000 and more. 


Still, in dribs and drabs they are starting to come. According to the New York Times, about 1,700 non-Muslim tourists traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2000, with the largest number of visitors coming from the United States, followed by Japan and Germany.  


It’s worth noting that, when it comes to processing incoming foreigners, the Saudis have ample experience. As the official custodian of the two holy mosques, every year the country greets Muslims from all over world, making the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, which is an at-least-once-in-a-lifetime obligation for believers who have the financial resources to carry it out. Last year, some 1.36 million Muslims traveled from overseas to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, up from 1.27 million in 2000 and 1.07 million in 1999. Hundreds of thousand other Muslims performed the off-season Umrah pilgrimage, or mini-Hajj. 


In July 2000, in an effort to boost Muslim tourism within Saudi Arabia, the authorities issued a new set of regulations that permitted overnight transit passengers making the Umrah to obtain extended visas, with which they could travel to all parts of the kingdom. Until then, Umrah pilgrims were only allowed to visit the cities of Mecca, Medina and Jeddah.  


The intention of developing incoming tourism is nothing new. Indeed, already in 1995, when the kingdom’s sixth five-year plan was made public, it was stated that the country’s tourism sector was targeting both Saudi and Gulf-nationals to stay and spend their tourist dollars in the kingdom. Reportedly, the government was confident that, by increasing the volume of regional tourism, it could hold onto capital that may otherwise be spent elsewhere, without compromising Islamic standards. 


The drive to keep Saudis at home is considered particularly important. According to Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, about three million Saudis leave their country every summer on tourist trips, spending $146 per night while abroad—one of the highest expenditure rates on tourism worldwide.  


In 1998, the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) published a report that estimated that only 17 percent of Saudi Arabian tourists spend their holidays in the country. Of the $17 billion spent by Saudi Arabian tourists that year, reported the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, only $4.6 billion remained within the kingdom's borders. If only a portion of the lost $12.41 billion in tourist expenditures could be retained by the Saudi Arabian tourist industry, it was surmised, the much-needed economic diversification would be well advanced. 


As a result, much of the tourism development has focused inward—or at the very most at Arabic-speaking and Muslim visitors. Recent ventures include “International Village” tourism project at Yamama Lake in the Riyadh Region, which will feature a combination of science-education and leisure; and a tourism complex for women and children, which is being built at cost of $5.3 million in the town of Al-Jouf, in northwest Saudi Arabia. 


Non-Muslim tourism is a much lower priority, and the prospect of tour buses of tourists—not to mention immodestly dressed backpackers—traipsing around the country is one that many Saudis still find difficult to stomach. After all, this is country, here a strict dress code is maintained, the sexes are segregated, and alcohol and movie houses are nowhere to be found. 


But it is a place which offers much to visitors—both Muslims and non-Muslims alike—ranging from ancient Nabataean carved tombs, Ottoman forts, oil wells, desert nature reserves and stunning coral reefs. Plans are being drawn up for tourist-only desert resorts, where tourists can relax in luxury, playing golf or and lying at the beach or swimming pool—soaking in Saudi Arabia’s natural beauty while at the same time not offending local sensibilities. – (MENA Report)

© 2001 Mena Report (

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