Saudi Arabia is trying to shed its unfriendly image and open its doors to foreigner tourists, including non-Muslims. It has announced that it will start issuing tourist visas from 2019. Saudi Arabia has pristine beaches and magnificent historical towns which can be of tremendous tourist interest. They have remained unexplored for lack of required rules.
According to figures released by the Saudi government, over 18 million people visited the country in 2016. But most of these visitors were Haj piligrims. The government now plans to promote Saudi Arabia as a holiday destination as part of its ambitious Vision 2030 programme, which is a blueprint for major developments in various sectors of the economy by the year 2030. Development of tourism as a major economic endeavour is a substantial part of Vision 2030 and the government has already started working on it.
In August 2017, the Saudi government announced its plans to develop 50 of its pristine Red Sea islands as autonomous tourist resorts. The country has hundreds of such islands with beautiful beaches which are at par with the best in the world. They have salubrious climate all year round with the average temperature hovering around 30° Celsius. The idea is to develop these islands and beaches with tourist facilities comparable with international standards. Work on these islands will begin next year and will be completed by the end of 2022. The initial investment for the projects will come from the Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund. The government is hopeful that foreign investors will be interested once the project takes off.
But the country’s socio-cultural climate, which prevents men and women socialising in public places, strict dress codes, ban on alcohol consumption and absence of entertainment such as theatre and cinema made it impossible to consider the country as a tourist destination. Hence, the country is considering relaxing the rules slightly. The government has already allowed the intermingling of men and women in public places and this was visible in Riyadh as men and women, mixed freely at conferences, concerts, in malls and coffee shops. The country hosted its first Formula E race recently and the event was accompanied by a rock concert. Women, who, until recently, were not even allowed to visit sporting stadiums, participated enthusiastically in both these events.
Interacting with a group of visiting media personnel from different countries, the Saudi Minister for Media, Dr Awwad Al Awwad, said Saudi Arabia was keen on projecting a moderate face. “Creating barriers and advocating a hardline form of Islam has not worked for us,” he admitted. He said the country wanted to project its liberal face and wanted people from the non-Muslim world to come and see it for themselves. He said: “Issuing tourist visas involves working on a mechanism to ensure that those who visited the country did not stay on because Saudi Arabia is one place where millions come in search of work. We are working on a mechanism and will put the logistics in place soon. We will start giving tourist visas from 2019,” he said.