Saudi Modernises to Push Tourism

·         Central to the transformations led by 38-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, is a major push for international visitors. It represents a sea change in a country that, until 2019, issued no nonreligious tourist visas and instead catered almost exclusively to Muslim pilgrims visiting Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities.

·         The country is hoping to draw 70 million international tourists per year by 2030, with tourism contributing 10 percent of its gross domestic product.


[ABS News Service/06.06.2024]

All across Saudi Arabia, we see countless projects being built, from simple museums to high-end resorts. These were the early fruits of an $800 billion investment in the travel sector, itself part of a much larger effort, Vision 2030, to remake the kingdom and reduce its economic dependence on oil.

Few countries present as complicated a prospect for travelers as Saudi Arabia.

Long associated with Islamic extremism, human rights abuses and the oppression of women, the kingdom has made strides in recent years to refashion its society and its reputation abroad.

The infamous religious police, which upheld codes of conduct based on an ultraconservative interpretation of Islam, were stripped of their power. Public concerts, once banned, are now ubiquitous. Women have been granted new rights — including the freedom to drive and to travel without permission from a male guardian — and are no longer required to wear floor-length robes in public or to cover their hair.

These changes are part of a broad set of strategies to diversify the kingdom’s economy, elevate its status in the world and soften its image — the last of which is a tall order for a government that has killed a newspaper columnist, kidnapped and tortured dissidents, precipitated a humanitarian crisis in Yemen and imprisoned people for supporting gay rights, among a number of other recent abuses.

Central to the transformations led by 38-year-old Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, is a major push for international visitors. It represents a sea change in a country that, until 2019, issued no nonreligious tourist visas and instead catered almost exclusively to Muslim pilgrims visiting Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities. In Tourist e-visa is approved online in minutes.

Saudi Arabia has already transformed one of its premier destinations — Al-Ula, with its UNESCO-listed Nabatean tombs — from a neglected collection of archaeological sites into a lavish retreat with a bevy of activities on offer, including guided tours, wellness festivals, design exhibitions and hot air balloon rides.

Another project will create a vast array of luxury resorts on or near the Red Sea.

Still more projects include the development of Diriyah, the birthplace of the first Saudi state; the preservation and development of the coastal city of Jeddah; an offshore theme park called the Rig; and Neom, the futuristic city that has garnered the lion’s share of attention.

All told, the country is hoping to draw 70 million international tourists per year by 2030, with tourism contributing 10 percent of its gross domestic product. (In 2023, the country logged 27 million international tourists, according to government figures, with tourism contributing about 4 percent of G.D.P.)

To me, the sign broadcast the lines being drawn to compartmentalize the country, which is now marketing itself to two sets of travelers with increasingly divergent — and sometimes contradictory — expectations: luxury tourists at ease with bikinis and cocktails, and pilgrims prepared for modesty and strict religious adherence. It’s hard to know whether the kingdom can satisfy both without antagonizing either.

The name Al-Ula refers to both a small city and a broader region packed with attractions: Hegra, the kingdom’s first UNESCO World Heritage site and its biggest archaeological draw, is a 30-minute drive north of Old Town, a maze of crumbling mud-brick buildings now partly restored. Between the two, and fanning out to the east and west, are several other archaeological sites, as well as a smattering of resorts, event spaces and adventure outfitters. Farther northeast, beyond Hegra, is the Sharaan Nature Reserve, a vast protected zone used for conservation efforts.

Like Petra, its better-known counterpart in Jordan, Hegra was built by the Nabateans, an ancient people who flourished 2,000 years ago. The site contains more than 100 tombs that were carved from solid rock, their entrances adorned with embellishments. Most impressive among them, set apart and standing some 70 feet tall, is a tomb colloquially called the Lonely Castle.

The Red Sea project, billed as the “world’s most ambitious regenerative tourism destination.” After weaving through a morass of construction-related traffic, I boarded a yacht — alongside a merry band of Saudi influencers — and was piloted some 15 miles to a remote island, where I disembarked in a world of unqualified opulence at the St. Regis Red Sea Resort.

The tourist is chauffeured around in an electric golf cart — past 43 beachside “dune” villas and onto two long boardwalks that connect the rest of the resort to 47 “coral” villas, built on stilts over shallow turquoise water. 100 percent renewable energy, a solar-powered 5G network, plans to enhance biologically diverse habitats.

By 2030, the Red Sea project will offer 50 hotels across its island and inland sites. Citing the Maldives, he mentioned the kingdom’s plans to claim a share of the same high-end market.

The resort will legally serve alcohol by the end of the year. (While a liquor store for non-Muslim diplomats recently opened in Riyadh, the Saudi government has made no indication that it plans to reconsider its broader prohibition of alcohol.)

The hotel is undeniably impressive. But there’s an inescapable irony to a lavish resort built at unfathomable expense in the middle of the sea — with guests ferried out by chartered boat and seaplane — that flaunts its aspirations for sustainability.

Every piece of vegetation, including 646 palm trees, had been transplanted from an off-site nursery. Later, reviewing historical satellite images, the island — described as pristine — had been dramatically fortified and, in the process, largely remade. Its footprint had also been significantly altered. It was, in a sense, an artificial island built where a smaller natural island once stood.

Something else struck me, too: The place was nearly empty, save for the staff and the Saudi influencers. Granted, the resort had just opened the month before — but the same was true at the nearby Six Senses Southern Dunes, an inland Red Sea resort that opened in November. Fredrik Blomqvist, the general manager there, told me that its isolated location in a serene expanse of desert — part of its appeal — also presented a challenge in drawing customers. “The biggest thing,” he said, “is to get the message out that the country is open.”

Since the country began issuing tourist visas, influencers have been documenting their experiences in places like Jeddah and Al-Ula, their trips often paid for by the Saudi government. Their breezy content contributes to the impression that the kingdom is awaiting discovery by foreign visitors with out-of-date prejudices. To an extent, for a certain segment of tourists, that’s true.

For many travelers, though, the depiction of the kingdom as an uncomplicated getaway could be dangerously misleading.

Speech in Saudi Arabia is strictly limited; dissent is not tolerated — nor is the open practice of any religion other than the government’s interpretation of Islam. In its travel advisory, the U.S. Department of State warns that “social media commentary — including past comments — which Saudi authorities may deem critical, offensive, or disruptive to public order, could lead to arrest.” Punishment for Saudi nationals has been far worse: In 2023, a retired teacher was sentenced to death after he criticized the ruling family via anonymous accounts. As of late 2023, he remained in prison.

Other restrictions are harder to parse. L.G.B.T.Q. travelers are officially welcome in the kingdom but face a conundrum: They might face arrest or other criminal penalties for openly expressing their sexual orientation or gender identity. As recently as 2021, an independent U.S. federal agency included Saudi Arabia on a list of countries where same-sex relationships are punishable by death, noting that “the government has not sought this penalty in recent years.”

When asked how he would convince a same-sex couple that it was safe to visit, Jerry Inzerillo, a native New Yorker and the group chief executive of Diriyah, said: “We don’t ask you any questions when you come into the country or when you leave.”

“Maybe that’s not conclusive enough,” he added, “but a lot of people have come.”

Female travelers might also face difficulties, since advancements in women’s rights are not equally distributed throughout the kingdom.

The changes were more visible in big cities and tourist centers. Ghydda Tariq, an assistant marketing manager in Al-Ula, described how new professional opportunities had emerged for her in recent years. Maysoon, a young woman I met in Jeddah, made extra money by occasionally driving for Uber. Haneen Alqadi, an employee at the St. Regis Red Sea, described how women there are free to wear bikinis without fear of repercussions.

Outside such places, though, I sometimes went for days without seeing more than a handful of women, invariably wearing niqabs, let alone seeing them engaged in public life or tourism. My photographs reflect that imbalance.

As an easily identifiable Western man, I moved through the country with an array of advantages: the kindness and cheery curiosity of strangers, the ease of passage at military checkpoints, and the freedom to interact with a male-dominated society at markets, museums, parks, restaurants, cafes. Not all travelers could expect the same treatment.

Roaming in the far north and south, I often found the earlier version of the kingdom — with lax rules and less development — that had been described to me in Al-Ula.

I trekked to the northern city of Sakaka to see an archaeological site promoted as the Stonehenge of Saudi Arabia: a set of monoliths called the Rajajil Columns thought to have been erected some 6,000 years ago but about which little is definitively known.

My heart sank when I pulled into the parking lot after a five-hour drive and found the columns blocked by a tall fence. Approaching on foot, though, I noticed that a section of the fence had been peeled back and that visitors were wandering freely among the stones, which protruded from the earth like isolated clusters of crooked teeth. I joined the small crowd, if hesitatingly, and was surprised to find no footpaths, nor anything to keep us a safe distance from the columns. In the end I wondered if our access had been officially approved or informally arranged.

My travel experiences were sometimes awkward in other ways, too.

Standing just outside the grounds of the central mosque in Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad is buried, I was detained by a stern member of the Special Forces. (Even after 2019, non-Muslim tourists remained barred from Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities. The ban was relaxed in parts of Medina in 2021.)

The guard interrogated me and, after calling a colleague to confer, demanded that I leave the area. “Go,” he said threateningly. Another traveler who witnessed the encounter scurried away to avoid a similar fate.

The unsettling exchange cast a pall over my time in the city, which few non-Muslims have seen. As far as I knew, I’d abided by the rules by staying outside the grounds of the Prophet’s Mosque — a boundary line that I’d confirmed with tourism officials beforehand.