“My Kingdom will survive only insofar as it remains a country difficult to access, where the foreigner will have no other aim, with his task fulfilled, but to get out.” – King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, c. 1930
Not exactly the most welcoming words, coming from the founder of a country said to be home to one of the most hospitable people in the world, Saudi Arabia. Perhaps these words of the late King have been taken too literally when it comes to accommodating for international visitors to Saudi-Arabia.
Currently most of the tourism to Saudi-Arabia is religious based or business related. International tourists are kept away from Saudi by imposing numerous restrictions on travelers and offering very limited ways to enter the country.
Saudi-Arabia has great potential for the international tourism market however the industry still remains predominantly under-developed.
Why does Saudi-Arabia need international tourists? There would be many benefits of having more international tourists visiting the Kingdom.
BENEFITS OF OPENING FOREIGN TOURISM INTO SAUDI ARABIA:
- Creating new jobs for Saudis all over the country
- Helping Saudis reconnect with their roots and increase national pride
- Giving the Kingdom a more open and accommodating image worldwide.
- Increasing environmental awareness and nature conservation
- Spreading cultural awareness among Saudis
- Boosting economy
- Improving service quality and infrastructure
- Helping to establish a more efficient public transportation system
Discrimination, Restrictions, Surveillance
So what keeps international tourists from coming to the Kingdom? The biggest obstacle for tourists interested in travelling to the Kingdom is the difficulty to obtain an entry visa.
A Saudi sponsor is required to start the visa application process. Specific criteria applies to who can apply. In other words lots of paperwork, time, hassle and money is required. Visas are mostly issued for business travel, family visits and religious tourism such as Umrah and Hajj visas.
Currently ( in 2010) there are only five companies licensed to sponsor tourism visas. They are issued to certain nationalities only and tourists must arrive in groups of a minimum of four persons. Women must be over 30 or be accompanied by a male relative.
Upon arrival the tourists have to be picked up by the tour company representative and they must make sure all the tourists leave the country too. While in the country the tourists are supposed to stay on guided tours and the tour company is responsible for their supervision. Any “lost” tourists must be reported immediately to police.
The Surprising Sand-pit
Another obstacle the tourism industry faces is Saudi-Arabia’s bleak image of being a mere “sand-pit”. Travelers are simply not aware of the rich cultural heritage the Kingdom could offer. Saudi-Arabia boasts incredibly diverse scenery, colorful culture and pristine nature. There are places of interest that match many international destinations but the ones in Saudi are not ruined by mass tourism. Some sites can still be explored without disturbance from a single other tourist group. See what the Kingdom has to offer tourists on this page: Explore Arabia
Many women feel intimidated by the rules and restrictions that apply to them in the Kingdom. They might feel they are not welcome and expect the experience of being a woman in Saudi-Arabia will be mostly negative. Female travelers are usually anxious about what to wear and stress about having to keep the abaya on at all times. The western media paints a very negative, one sided image of the treatment of women in the Kingdom which can be off-putting for both the female and male traveler.In the Future
The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, SCTA (founded in 2000) aims to establish a thriving tourism industry within a time frame of 20 years. SCTA states that its mission is to promote the Kingdom as a tourism destination.
The mission according to their website: “the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as the land of Islam, seeks for variable and distinguished tourism development, with social, cultural, environmental and economic benefits in the framework of its Islamic values and genuine traditional hospitality“.
The Commission has launched many ongoing projects aiming to improve the tourism industry. Time will tell if they reach their goals, but with the majority of the potential foreign travelers warded off by unattractive images, strict regulations and discouraging rules, perhaps the Commission should concentrate on getting the visitor into the country in the first place. At the time of writing (2010) most of the tourism sites remain accessible to foreigners of the expat community exclusively.
SCTA has began launching some videos promoting tourism in the Kingdom and becoming more active on their social media channels. However the language used is mostly Arabic, which alienates the foreign tourists and at the same time prevents them from knowing what is going on.
The late King might be surprised that if given the chance to visit the Kingdom, the foreigner would in fact leave with a smile on his face. The amazing experiences he had and the great hospitality shown to him would spread warm stories of the Saudis and Muslims around the world. His Kingdom and its people would be enriched by the experience and would not only survive, but also thrive.
Why are foreigners not shown the genuine traditional hospitality as mentioned by the Saudi Commission for Tourism, by welcoming them with open arms and doors? The answer might be found in the deeply rooted tribal attitudes of the desert Kingdom.”
Laura Alho is a Saudi travel consultant, travel writer and photographer based in Riyadh. She has a vast experience of travel and tourism around the Kingdom for over a decade.
EDIT: As of March 2010 Saudi-Arabia has discontinued issuing tourist visas until further notice. Expected to open again in 2012.
UPDATE: MARCH 2014
Saudi suspends tourist visa scheme
“Prince Sultan bin Salman, secretary-general of the Supreme Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), told the press during the Jeddah Economic Forum that the programme, called “Discover! Saudi Arabia”, had been temporarily put on hold to allow the government to focus on developing the tourism infrastructure in the kingdom and make it more attractive to the locals before considering to welcome foreign visitors.” http://www.arabianbusiness.com/saudi-suspends-tourist-visa-scheme-543331.html
UPDATE 2017: Saudi Arabia announces tourist visas will be soon opening again
UPDATE 2019: Sharek site is issuing tourist visas for specific sports events around Saudi Arabia, in a soft opening phase of tourist visas.
Text and Images copyright:Laura Alho
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Hello there! I’m Laura, the founder of Blue Abaya- the first travel blog in Saudi Arabia, established in 2010. Travel has always been my passion- so far I’ve visited 70 countries and I’m always on the lookout for new adventures inside and outside of Saudi Arabia!