Khaleej Times - 6/5/2006
For the first time, Saudi Arabia is looking to encourage non-Muslim tourists, touting a unique experience and even nightlife in a country where alcohol and the mixing of the sexes are banned.
“We promise you an experience that will hit your soul, mind and spirit ... (with) lots of nightlife,” Prince Sultan bin Salman, who heads the kingdom’s Supreme Commission for Tourism, told reporters in Dubai at the opening of a tourism promotion expo.
“We have nothing to hide, we will open up so the world can see,” he said, emphasising that the term “nightlife’ for Saudis tends to mean wholesome family activities -- rather than what may be enjoyed after dark in the West.
Saudis are known for their love of nighttime picnics during which they smoke water pipes and consume large quantities of bitter coffee and tea.
And another twist that is also likely to keep Saudi Arabia from becoming the next hot destination is the fact tourists will only be allowed to come in via licensed tour operators.
Prince Sultan promised visas in 24 hours and even upon arrival for some nationals, which would be a far cry from the current cumbersome process that takes weeks if not months in some cases.
The kingdom, the birthplace of Islam and home to two of its holiest sites, has long been viewed by most Westerners simply as a forbidding and xenophobic place where a strict interpretation of sharia (Islamic law) reigns and men take on several wives, all draped in black from head to toe.
Add to that the unwanted notoriety of being associated with the Al Qaeda terror network. It was the home of Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden before he became a fugitive and was stripped of his citizenship; also 15 of the 19 persons involved in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States were Saudis.
But the kingdom, which joined the World Trade Organization in December and has a significant youthful population eager to embrace globalisation, wants to alter these perceptions by opening up to tourists, especially non-Muslims, while at the same time retaining its Islamic values and traditions.
Prince Sultan said the kingdom wants to attract 1.5 million tourists a year by 2020, excluding the millions of Muslims that flock to the kingdom for hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, and a lesser pilgrimage known as Umrah.
He spoke of the ambitious goal of making tourism account for 18 percent of the gross domestic product by 2020, in a country that is the world’s largest producer and exporter of oil.
Saudi Arabia previously announced plans to spend billions on beefing up its tourism infrastructure and to break up the monopoly held by the state-owned carrier Saudi Arabian Airlines on domestic travel.
But it is not backpackers that the kingdom is after. Prince Sultan wants to attract well-heeled and discerning tourists eager to soak up a taste of the real Arabia. “I think 70 percent of tourists today are after a cultural and traditional experience,” he said.
Although the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are off limits to non-Muslims, the prince spoke of the charms of the many picturesque oases, valleys, mountains and even bountiful countryside. He touted the pleasures of snorkeling and diving off the country’s western Red Sea coast, whose beautiful coral reefs are said to rival those in the popular Egyptian resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh and Hurghada.
The port city of Jeddah with its many traditional markets is considered liberal by Saudi standards. There is also tremendous potential for off-road adventures in the vast Rub al-Khali desert, or Empty Quarter, to the southeast and the mountainous regions of Asir and Hijaz to the west.
And in a well-timed announcement, authorities revealed this month that they had unearthed a town near Al-Ula in northwestern Saudi Arabia that could date to the 9th century and was an important stopping point for caravans heading to Mecca.
The area is already home to the ancient city of Madain Saleh, regarded as the second most important for the Nabatean kingdom after Jordan’s Petra.
But despite the novelty of a Saudi vacation, the country faces several daunting challenges in attracting tourists.
First there is the question of security. The kingdom continues to battle suspected Qaeda-linked militants that have since 2003 targeted foreigners in a bloody and vicious campaign of bombings and shootings.
Then there is the potential backlash to the government’s tourism plans from the hardline clerical establishment, which remains very influential even with the reforms initiated by the popular King Abdullah.
Cherishing historic buildings and sites is regarded as a form of idolatry by some clerics. An Ottoman-era fort near Mecca was demolished in 2002 to make way for a housing project despite strong protests by Turkey. And in a place where nightclubs and bars are banned, Lonely Planet’s guide to Saudi Arabia recommends packing lots of good books.