“Welcome welcome. You are our first foreigners of the week…”, the tour guide at the entrance to the camel festival in the Saudi Arabian desert is talking to some Western women. He then adds: “But please put your headscarves back on, we’re not in Riyadh now.”
The guide, who calls himself Mr Faisal, has been assigned to meet and greet tourists, but the only group today is a mix of ex-pat Aramco employees and US medics.
“Next year, we’ll see thousands here,” Mr Faisal says with a smile.
The King Abdulaziz festival is something of a dress rehearsal for Saudi Arabia’s opening night. As part of its ambitious programme of reforms, the kingdom will soon begin issuing traveller visas for the first time, including to Australians, opening up one of the last frontiers of global tourism.
Falling oil prices and a desire to modernise has pushed tourism to the forefront of the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, a blueprint to prepare the biggest Arab economy for the post-oil era.
“One of the main pillars of the festival is tourism, which is why we moved it closer to the capital,” Fahd al-Semmari, an official from the culture ministry, said. “Saudis are known for their hospitality and now the world will get the chance to see.”
Officials announced last month that electronic visas would be available to “all nationals whose countries allow their citizens to visit” by the end of March. Their hope is to double the annual number of visitors to 30 million by 2030 and to raise $54 billion from them by 2020.
Tourism could also be among topics on the agenda when Crown Prince Mohammed visits London this month to showcase his modernising agenda.
The exact date of the diplomatically sensitive visit has so far been kept a secret, amid fears of protests against Saudi’s human rights record.
Riyadh feels like a city preparing for change. Work is nearly complete on an 85-station metro line, the country’s first ever public transport network. Multiplex cinemas, returning to the kingdom after a 30-year ban, are springing up across the capital.
A 500-square-kilometre “entertainment city” will feature a safari and theme park when it opens in 2021.
“Because Saudi has been behind closed doors for so long, people have become incredibly curious,” Jarrod Kyte, of the UK-based travel agency Steppes, said. “They want to tick off the most conservative country on Earth.
“Once the kingdom begins granting tourist visas to the UK – which we’re told will be very soon – we’ll have no shortage of people wanting to go.”
Package tours will include some of the world’s least-explored heritage sites, including Mada’in Saleh, home to the best preserved Nabataean tombs, Al-‘Ula, a 2000-year-old ghost town made of stone and mud, and Sakaka, listed by Unesco for its ancient standing stones. The kingdom also plans to turn 50 islands on the pristine Red Sea coastline into luxury resorts to rival Middle East hotspots such as Dubai and Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt.
“Obviously there are cultural sensibilities that need to be observed,” Mr Kyte added. “We’ll provide guidebooks on what is appropriate.”
This is why the ultra-conservative country, notorious for gender segregation and strict Islamic dress code, is still seen as an unlikely destination for tourists. Social and religious mores can be complicated.
Shapeless, floor-length black abayas must be worn by women in public. The rules for headscarves are more flexible. They are not required for foreigners in more liberal cities such as Jeddah and some parts of Riyadh, but are compulsory in Mecca and Medina. In an effort to change perceptions, the royal court has relaxed some of its most rigid regulations, allowing gender-mixed sporting events and permitting women to drive from June.
Single foreign females over the age of 25 will be allowed to travel to the kingdom without a male guardian.
“We’ve been told by the tourism ministry to prepare,” a hotel manager at a four-star hotel in Riyadh said. “Our staff will be allowed to shake a Western female guest’s hand. They must treat her as she would be at home.
“But at the same time we must not forget this is not the way to behave around Saudi women. It’s a two-tier system we’ll have to get used to.”
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, is underpinned by a strict interpretation of sharia which governs most aspects of everyday life: from women’s rights to property. The House of Saud has a historic alliance with hardline clerics, whose fundamentalist strain of Islam known as Wahhabism has fuelled domestic terrorism and contributed to global extremism.
The 32-year-old crown prince has vowed to destroy extremist ideologies and install in the country “a more moderate Islam”.
But Western diplomats have said that the royal family has shown few other signs they intend to abandon Wahhabism or cut loose its proponents, particularly as the kingdom ups the stakes in a sectarian conflict with Iran, its regional rival.
Crown Prince Mohammed’s decision to intervene in the conflict in neighbouring Yemen, where it is supporting the government fighting Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, has also done little to improve Saudi’s image.
Its air and sea blockade of the war-torn country has helped create the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Its indiscriminate bombing of schools and hospitals has left hundreds dead. In a bid to help counter negative press, the kingdom has hired a raft of British and American PR companies. Some of them were seen stage-managing a recent press conference in Riyadh, where the Saudi-led coalition announced to great fanfare a $US1.5 billion aid package to Yemen.
Australians are currently warned by DFAT’s Smart Traveller site to “reconsider your need to travel” due to the risk of terrorist attacks.
“Before, they just didn’t care how they appeared to the world,” one British adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said candidly at the sidelines of the conference.
“Now, they cannot afford not to care what the international community thinks. They need the Yankee dollar.”
Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton reopens on Sunday, more than three months after it became a holding place of princes and ministers detained in an anti-corruption purge.
It was closed in an unprecedented move on Nov 4 by Crown Prince Mohammed, who has consolidated his grip on power since his surprise appointment as heir to the throne.
The hotel website last month listed rooms as available from Feb 14. On Sunday it showed availability from Feb 11. Many high-profile suspects, including billionaire Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, have been released in recent weeks in exchange for what officials called “financial settlements”.
The Telegraph, London