Tourism in Saudi-Arabia Faces Many Obstacles

“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.


  • 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

Female Tourists

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.saudi female tourists soukIn 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.

Ten amazing places to visit in Saudi ArabiaPotential of Saudi tourism 
Gizan Province in the Southern part of the country, also the port to the Farasan Islands, one of Jacques Cousteau’s favorite diving destinations. A place so beautiful yet untouched by mass tourism is hard to find elsewhere in the world.
The Medinah region is perhaps the most versatile and offers plenty of historical sites including Madain Saleh, The Hijaz railway, Al-Ula. and Al Khuraiba. Khaybar  and ancient tombs and mysterious lines in the desert. The region has absolutely stunning scenery from the Red Sea Coast of Yanbu , to the lava fields and volcano craters.

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.


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.”

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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  • SoileSeptember 6, 2011 - 7:14 am

    Great post again, as usual!ReplyCancel

  • crsSeptember 6, 2011 - 9:50 pm

    Hi! Thanks for this post. As always, I love reading what you write.

    I watched all the videos and they are visually gorgeous! Thanks for posting them! I also noticed that in each of the four, when people were shown, almost all of the images were of men: riding camels or horses, boating, eating communal meals, selling at the market, dancing, drumming, etc. In contrast, there were far fewer of women (a number of young girls, but not women) and mostly, those women were single head-shots, just waving or smiling, not *doing*. There are a couple exceptions (like the henna, although we only see the young girl, not the woman-artist; a quick shot of a few women walking; an older woman kissing a child). Certainly in Saudi Arabia, women can be seen all the time, doing all kinds of things, and are often in community with one another, right? As a Western woman watching these promotional videos, though, if I didn’t know that, I would wonder, “where are all the women?” and I might be concerned about visiting. Anyway, just a thought.ReplyCancel

  • AnonymousSeptember 7, 2011 - 3:53 am

    Great well written article thank you for sharing.

    I have a question. It looks as though single males could not visit on the tourist visa, is this correct? This would cut out a large number of visitors.

    Saudi Arabian society is so closed minded the Kings attitude is the norm even today. foreigners are simply not welcome.

    Look at how they treat the poor foreign workers for example. Like slaves! They dont allow Indians or Pakistanis on tourist visas as if those nationalities are not worthy of being a tourist in KSA.They are only for cheap labor.

    Once the foreigner arrives his passport will be confiscated and he will be treated like a child that needs supervision.


  • ♥ααℓiα♥September 7, 2011 - 9:17 am

    loooool why does a woman have to be over 30 to get a visa??? do they think anyone +31 isn’t an object of affection or just suddenly transform into an old bat??

    great post :-DReplyCancel

  • Chick Flick JournalSeptember 8, 2011 - 12:31 am

    wow theres a lot i didnt know aboutReplyCancel

  • LaylahSeptember 8, 2011 - 3:18 am

    crs-I made the same observation, women are not as visible in the clips than the men. I doubt if the girls and women pictured are even Saudis, in reality they might be from neighboring countries!
    Appearing on such a public video is a big taboo.
    I can see how the absence of women in such promotional videos can be concerning and it raises suspicions for westerners who don’t have a clue on how the real life in Saudi is.
    Saudi women are very visible in the community, albeit not as much as the men. Nevertheless they do other things than just SHOPPING as the videos display. It’s a shame they spread such a distorted picture of the women here.ReplyCancel

  • LaylahSeptember 8, 2011 - 3:26 am

    Lina-I don’t think the rules ban single (did you mean unmarried) men from entering the Kingdom but rather it means they should arrive in groups. Even a married man could not travel alone or as a couple, they would have to bring the kids along to be granted entry. No honeymoons to Saudi I guess!

    aalia-LOL I really don’t know about “too old to be attractive enough” factor but I guess any women under 30 is a minor to them. Funny there is no mention of age restrictions to boys.

    CFJ-Im glad I was able to shed some light on Saudi to a Saudi lolReplyCancel

  • LaylahSeptember 11, 2011 - 3:33 pm

    Hi Izdiher! If you mean how that window pops up when you try copy something, you can get it by pasting a html code on your blog. Google “disable right click” and you should find the code with that.ReplyCancel

  • ♥●• Izdiher·•●♥September 11, 2011 - 12:54 pm

    Its loaded with information .

    I want to ask you about copy writing the blog .Like you have and no one steal my stuff.

    Help me

    jazak Allah khair.ReplyCancel

  • SylviaSeptember 12, 2011 - 5:01 pm

    Lovely videos, they really do want to make me visit Saudi Arabia…except I’d have to convince a male relative to accompany my young self, then somewhere find two other people willing to go, not to mention a Saudi sponsor etc etc. With all this, I think the abaya would be the least of my worries – in fact, it actually seems like the easiest solution when travelling to a country that requires more conservative dress, as instead of buying an entirely new wardrobe for one trip you can just put it over whatever you feel best in :)ReplyCancel

  • LaylahSeptember 13, 2011 - 4:13 am

    Sylvia-thanks for sharing your views!
    It does sound like a mission impossible doesn’t it?
    I hope they relax the rules someday and you and many others are able to visit the Magic Kingdom :)
    And you’re right, the woman could actually travel really light and not have to think about her travel wardrobe too much!ReplyCancel

  • AnonymousSeptember 14, 2011 - 2:48 am

    Why does saudi need to be so open to the world?
    I think more tourism in saudi will not be a positive. Why do more ppl need to go and contaminate my country as they do in all other countries?. As soon as tourism comes in..guess what? brothels will pop up..more places to drink alcohol, loss of identity and culture.
    Look at dubai..that could be saudi in 15 years if they allow so much tourism.
    If foreigners are complaining that the laws are too hard to follow or that single women have it hard..well don’t come, that’s why we make it so hard to get there is less appeal.
    Maybe ure view is different as ure not saudi yet want to live here and want to see more change, but for the ppl living in saudi..we like it the way it is. Look at other countries that have been affected by a large amount of tourism..its not a good outcome. please try to see the entire picture not just from ure own eyes.

  • ♥●• Izdiher·•●♥September 18, 2011 - 10:51 am

    Jazajk Allah khairReplyCancel

  • LaylahSeptember 19, 2011 - 7:37 pm

    Saudi Princess-How does having more tourism equal to brothels popping up?FYI there are brothels in your country already.
    Tourists are not that stupid that they would come to SAUDI ARABIA just to visit a brothel. I mean come on are you for real?

    Speaking of brothels, look what happened to Bahrain because of all the Saudi tourists that go there.

    How will tourists bring more places to drink alcohol in Saudi Arabia, huh?Isnt it against the law after all?Saudis will drink their alcohol hidden in their homes, not publicly. There is probably more alcohol in KSA than you can imagine.

    Dubai allows alcohol thats different.I agree they might have lost part of their cultural identity on the way.
    But opening Saudi to tourists does not mean it automatically becomes another Dubai.

    Have you not visited Oman, for example? Their culture and customs and nature is well preserved despite the large number of tourists entering the country annually. There are many ways to preserve nature.
    Tourists leave Oman with the image of friendly hospitable people and a unique amazing landscape and nature. Why wouldn’t you want that for your country?

    Why do you insist on people seeing Saudis as racist, backward and hostile to outsiders?
    What good does this do, honestly speaking?

    You failed to provide any realistic reasons why tourists should not come into Saudi.

    Luckily, not all Saudis, in fact only a small majority are so closed-minded as you seem to be.ReplyCancel

  • Blog Hate Mail: The Hall Of ShameDecember 3, 2014 - 4:31 pm

    […] The next hate comment I saved was posted as a reply to a comment “Saudi Princess” left on the article “Tourism in Saudi-Arabia Faces Many Obstacles”. The Princess wrote how she thought allowing tourists into Saudi would contaminate her country, how brothels would start popping up and alcohol would be served everywhere(as if the Saudis are not already doing a pretty good job on all of those). Check the full post and comments here: […]ReplyCancel

  • BilalunesMarch 8, 2015 - 9:55 pm

    Layla can you give me your full name?

    I want to use this article as a reference.

    I like it, this a really useful topicReplyCancel

    • LaylaMarch 9, 2015 - 8:41 pm

      Hi Bilal! thank you, I’ve sent you an email!ReplyCancel

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