Saudi Arabia | DRIYA Dora Jane Flesher, a retired accountant from Arkansas, desired an off-the-beaten-path post-pandemic experience. Ancient tombs sculpted into sandstone outcroppings near Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia, mesmerised her. A museum with an assortment of vintage TVs, touch-tone phones, and rocks from every state in the union left her less than impressed.
The 65-year-old Ms. Flesher added, “We got to experience the country in its beginning of opening up.” But that only meant we saw a lot of weird stuff that won’t be a big tourist attraction.
Welcome to one of the newest tourist frontiers on the planet.
The holiest places in Islam are located in Saudi Arabia, which has always welcomed Muslim pilgrims. However, traditional tourism has long struggled to flourish there due to conservative attitudes and a general distrust of foreigners.
As part of efforts to diversify its oil-dependent economy, the government now wants to spend $1 trillion over the following ten years to transform Saudi Arabia into a popular tourism destination. There are plans for a developing cruise industry, opulent Red Sea resorts, and eco-lodges in the desert.
The first Western visitors are experiencing a more unpolished side of things.
Since March, when Saudi Arabia lifted its most recent Covid-related travel restrictions, adventurous travellers have been trickling into the nation, which is three times the size of Texas and home to six remote Unesco World Heritage Sites, to explore its sprawling capital and experience traditional Arab hospitality.
Pioneering tourists are entering a nation that is not yet prepared for them. Hotels must be constructed and tour guides must be educated. Not every historical place is always accessible.
According to Ms. Flesher, a small-scale American tour operator, the Saudis are “trying to find out ‘What are we doing with tourists?'”
The sensitivity of Saudi Arabia to criticism should be added. A new law that already has a poor reputation for human rights now forbids “damaging the reputation of tourism,” which is a troubling and ambiguous prohibition. In an early day this year, authorities put 81 people to death for a variety of offences.
According to rights organisations, two Saudi women recently sentenced to jail time for social media posts each received sentences totaling more than 30 years. Inquiries on the sentences were not immediately answered by the Saudi Media Ministry.
For Western visitors, the 2018 murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi also holds a lot of significance. Since 2019, Bill Jones, who has led three American tour groups to Saudi Arabia, said, “The issue of Khashoggi always comes up.”
He added that he works to connect his clients with common Saudi citizens who can describe daily living to them. But it will never be simple to sell Saudi Arabia to us, he continued.
U.S. intelligence assessed that the execution was probably ordered by Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He disputes being involved. Saudi Arabia is already attracting tourists who claim they want to see the nation for themselves.
Authorities jailed women’s rights activists who fought for such liberties even as the crown prince moved to relax restrictions including a ban on women drivers. When one of Saudi Arabia’s women-only driving schools was discovered by her tour group, San Antonio startup investor Jean Cheever said she was thrilled.
She joined the students as they drove around a parking area in the desert. They were simply thrilled, according to Ms. Cheever, a woman in her 60s. It was funny to see them honk at each other while driving around.
In the latter part of 2019, the walled kingdom issued its first visitor visas. Before the epidemic stopped travel, more over 400,000 were issued.