Saudi Arabia welcomes non-religious visitors

Published July 10th, 2006 - 06:37 GMT

By Satish G. | eTN 
Heritage villages, scuba diving and much more is in the pipeline as Saudi Arabia gets on with initiatives to attract “non-religious visitors.”  But while tourists are welcome, they also have to adhere to certain stipulations. Sample this: “Women younger than 40 must be accompanied by their brothers or fathers.”
On the positive side, there have been plenty of developments in the Kingdom, which indicate that the destination is opening up. Keen on developing its tourism infrastructure and shedding its image of being “accessible to only a handful of non-Muslim tourists,” Saudi Arabia has disclosed initiatives such as identification of five heritage villages.
The villages as the tourist centers are built to look like traditional old Arabian townships, featuring regional architecture, crafts, costume and cuisine.
The ancient town of Al-Ghat in Riyadh region, Al-Ula in Madinah region, Rejal Al-Maie in Asir region, Jabah in Hail region, and Dhi Ayn in Baha region are the five locations for the new heritage towns. The heritage villages also help preserve the identity of the country’s cultural heritage besides attracting tourists and related economic activities.
Recently, it was shared that the kingdom was in the process of licensing 18 tour operators to issue tourist visas to non-Muslim visitors from the West and Asia. The nation hopes to increase the “non-religious visitors” from 50,000 a year initially and to 200,000 annually by 2010.
According to AP, the change springs from the new policies of King Abdullah, “who wants to show that his country is more than just the former home of Osama bin Laden and a breeding ground for Islamic extremism.”
“He wants to show the world a different face to the kingdom. It’s all part of a greater plan to open up the country, to show that though it is Arab and Islamic, it is also modern and moderate,” reportedly said Mishari al Thaybi, a Saudi writer and analyst for the London-based newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat. “Tourists are the best ambassadors for any country.”
There is a lot more being done to open up the tourist market. But these are with certain riders. 
Some of these include “visitors don’t expect alcohol, everyone refrains from eating in public from dawn to dusk during the holy month of Ramadan” etc. According to the tourism commission, only single entry visas will be issued. Coed tours will be allowed -- as long as a father or brother is with any women under-40. Visitors must follow local customs, and a booklet printed in several languages will be distributed to tourists instructing them on Saudi’s strict social traditions.
On one hand, it being said that all female tourists will be required to dress according to Saudi tradition. This requires being covered from head to toe with only their face, hands and feet exposed. And in the most conservative city, the capital, Riyadh, women must wear a black robe over their clothes. On the other hand, there is an option for scuba-diving, with more than 1,600 kilometers of coast along the Red Sea and just under 800 kilometers of beach along the Persian Gulf. But Saad al-Kadi, adviser to Prince Sultan, has been referred to acknowledging there can always be an exception to the rules, as long as its not flaunted.

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