Saudi Arabia is trying to get their tourism industry going but will they be able to succeed with all the negative perceptions?
14 September 2017| Last updated on 14 September 2017
Saudi is starting to feel the pinch with oil prices dropping and realised that they need to start creating alternative income streams for the country. One of the options that they are looking at is developing their tourism industry but experts aren’t sure if this is going to work because of the negative perception about the country and strict code of conduct.
Saudi has a vast amount of attractions to offer tourists: the Red Sea coasts with 50 natural islands, breath-taking corals and diving destinations, four UNESCO world heritage sites, 80 archaeological sites, their beautiful deserts, a unique wildlife experience and so much more.
Saudi does, however, also have very strict rules in the country where different genders aren’t allowed to mix, women need to cover up with abayas when in public and aren’t allowed to drive, the use of alcoholic substances is illegal and entertainment such as movie theatres and music are seen as ‘haram’ (forbidden). Further to this, it is also nearly impossible to get into the country if you are not Muslim, have work to conduct there or have a spouse working in the country. The country does not offer tourist visas although you can get a visitor’s visa if you know someone there who invites you to visit them.
Some of this might however change as the country is slowly but surely starting to open up to foreigners.
In February, the Shaden Luxury Desert Camp opened their doors to guests but the grand opening wasn’t as grand as they expected it to be with the camp still awaiting peacocks to be delivered for the garden of the royal suite.
In April Saudi officials announced the Six Flags theme park which is aiming to be the largest cultural, sports, and entertainment city in the world. This theme park will be located in Al Qidiya, southwest of Riyadh, is planned to be almost the size of Las Vegas and will have international standards.
In August, four months later, another development was announced as part of the Vision 2030 project where Saudi is planning to develop the 180 km stretch Red Sea coastline into a luxurious resort.
The resort will function ‘semi-autonomously’ with its own laws which are said to be on par with international standards. It is speculated that different genders will be able to mix freely within the resort, women won’t have to cover up with abayas and they might even be serving alcohol at the resort. Unfortunately, we can’t be sure as the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage hasn’t yet responded on an enquiry about what the restrictions will be at the resort.
It is said that guests will be able to either fly directly to the luxurious destination without requiring a visa, or be granted a tourist visa to enter the Kingdom.
Many of the citizens and entrepreneurs in Saudi are ready for the government to open the Kingdom to tourists. An orange farmer, Ahmed Al Masoud, told Bloomberg that he wants to turn his orange grove into a resort and teach tourists about traditional agriculture.
Others, however, say that the country isn’t ready to be opened up for tourists to come in. Strict laws and the lack of entertainment in the country is deterring tourists from visiting while the lack of tourists are scaring international investors away.
The negative perception of the country isn’t helping either. People are scared to visit Saudi Arabia with ISIS being associated with the Islam religion and all the bad things that they hear on the media. According to the Financial Times, Saudi Arabia is planning to launch PR hubs in London, Berlin and Paris to promote the ‘changing face’ of the Kingdom in an attempt to overcome the negative ideas associated with the country. These global hubs would need to produce press releases, publish content on social media and invite “social influencers” to visit Saudi Arabia.
Many things remain unclear with these new developments. Will the tourist visas only be valid for the luxurious resort and ‘tourist destinations’ or will tourists be able to explore the rest of the Kingdom as well? And will the police be as strict on tourists as they currently are on residents in the country? Not to even mention if the segregation of genders will be implemented in these tourist destinations.
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Although these are all very grand and novel initiatives, tourist, especially westerners, want to go and relax with their spouse, or partner. They enjoy having a drink, or three and want to unwind without worrying whether or not they are busy breaking the law. Even locals in Saudi Arabia would rather travel to Dubai for a holiday than to travel in the Kingdom.
To some extent, how far Saudi Arabia is willing to let go of their strict laws and regulations in the country will determine the success of their tourism projects for Vision 2030. Change is difficult, especially in a big country such as Saudi Arabia that is so set in their ways and, until recently, unwillingness to compromise.