Will Saudi Arabia Open Itself Up for Tourism?

Desert “glamping,” pristine diving spots and some of the best archaeological sites you’ve never heard of all await visitors to Saudi Arabia. There is just one catch: The ultraconservative kingdom doesn’t issue tourist visas.

But that now looks set to change.

Saudi Arabia’s vast oil wealth has allowed the ruling monarchy to keep the country and its economy largely insulated from outside influences while imposing an austere version of Islam. But a sharp drop in crude prices over the past two years is pressuring the Saudi royals to open both the economy and the country’s vastly underdeveloped tourism industry to the wider world.

“It is the last frontier of tourism,” said Brid Beeler, a Washington-based tourism consultant who organizes and leads rare customized tours of Saudi Arabia. “There are no places in the world like it, that are so unknown.”

Fearful of Western cultural mores, the kingdom has always been off limits to foreign holidaymakers. But Prince Sultan bin Salman, the head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, said that he is pushing to make it easier for both Muslim and non-Muslim tourists to visit the secluded Gulf state.

“We are depriving ourselves of the opportunity to show people what our country is about,” the prince said.

The most common visitors are pilgrims: Every year, some 18 million Muslims from around the globe travel to Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Until recently, visa rules restricted them to those two cities and to nearby Jeddah, because of Saudi worries about security and illegal migration. But a program launched in April by the tourism commission encourages pilgrims to visit sites elsewhere in the kingdom by allowing them to convert their visas into tourist visas. (Citizens of neighboring Gulf Arab states can already travel to Saudi Arabia visa-free under the terms of a regional alliance.)

Prince Sultan said that he has also submitted a proposal to start issuing tourist visas to non-Muslims—with a format similar to an earlier experiment when Saudi Arabia allowed in tour groups from the U.S., Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, the U.K., Denmark and Japan.

Still, Mecca and Medina remain strictly off-limits to non-Muslims. And despite quietly warming Saudi ties with Israel over their shared hatred of Iran, Israeli citizens are still banned from entering Saudi Arabia.

Even with its more welcoming attitude, Saudi Arabia is unlikely to be swarmed by tourists. Security concerns may deter many potential visitors. In a travel warning updated in April, the State Department “urges U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of traveling to Saudi Arabia” and “keep a low profile” if they do go. Sunni radicals, including Islamic State and al Qaeda, have long seen the ruling monarchy as heretics. The country has suffered a recent spate of terrorist attacks, including a startling suicide bombing that killed four security guards next to the mosque in Medina where the Prophet Muhammad is said to be buried.

Compounding these jitters, Saudi Arabia, one of the Arab world’s Sunni heavyweights, has also been engulfed in an increasingly bitter sectarian power struggle with Shiite Iran—including proxy battles now raging in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere.

Other potential tourists may have been put off by Saudi Arabia’s severe restrictions on personal freedoms. Based on its stringent interpretation of Islam, the Saudi government enforces segregation by gender and imposes a conservative dress code on women, among other strictures. Bikinis and booze remain forbidden.

But Iran’s theocratic rulers insist on a similar set of mores, and that hasn’t stopped tourism from flourishing there. And proponents of increased tourism to Saudi Arabia say that the mystery of the closed-off kingdom is among its biggest draws.

In the coastal Saudi city of Jeddah, a movement to revitalize the historic quarter hopes that tourists will follow. With government encouragement, local residents are beginning to restore buildings that were largely abandoned following the oil boom of the 1970s. In 2014, the area made Unesco’s list of World Heritage sites.

“I want to turn my house into a boutique hotel—that’s my investment plan,” said Samir Matboly, a homeowner sitting in the foyer of his newly restored family home in Jeddah. Outside, the neighborhood’s first souvenir shops have opened in recent months, selling mugs, keychains and small replicas of the old town’s traditional homes.

For Ahmad Angawi, a Jeddah-based artist, the restoration of the old city is much more than a commercial opportunity.

“It’s becoming a search for identity,” said Mr. Angawi, who is working to revive the city’s traditional crafts, such as geometric woodcarving.

Such sentiments are relatively new in Saudi Arabia. When Prince Sultan was first offered a job at the tourism commission in 2000, he said, his heart sank. “It was the last thing I wanted. Tourism in Saudi Arabia? I knew it was complicated,” recalled the prince, a former astronaut who flew on a 1985 U.S. space shuttle flight.

But during the reign of King Salman, who took power last year, economic imperatives have pressured the closed kingdom to tolerate more interaction with the 21st-century world beyond its borders, even at the risk of eroding tight controls on social mores.

As such, tourism has become an important part of an ambitious government plan for economic change known as Saudi Vision 2030, which is aimed at reducing Saudi Arabia’s historic dependence on oil. Oil revenues make up about 39% of Saudi gross domestic product; tourism accounts for less than 3%.

Saudi Arabia has experimented with tourism before. For a few years, in partnership with the national carrier, Saudi Airlines, tour operators from the U.S., Japan and several European countries organized trips for small groups of foreign visitors. That program ended in 2014. The government said that it needed to focus on developing domestic tourism before opening the country to outside visitors.

Still, Saudi Arabia boasts several promising tourist draws, such as prehistoric rock art in the region of Hail and the ruins of the first-century Nabatean settlement of Madain Saleh—Saudi Arabia’s own version of Jordan’s famed Petra. But limited transportation and hotel accommodation means visitors are likely to have a tough time making the trip.

Saudi authorities say that one of their top priorities is attracting private investment to develop the infrastructure needed to support an influx of visitors. Officials also want to open new museums and promote neglected heritage sites.

Another major focus in a country with an 11% unemployment rate and a population that is mostly under 30: persuading deep-pocketed Saudis themselves to vacation in the kingdom and thus to create much-needed jobs.

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