Telegraph.co.uk - 13/5/2006
Saudi Arabia hopes to attract a million visitors a year with the help of a new tourism visa.
Eighteen approved tour operators in the kingdom have begun offering visa services as part of a series of tourism initiatives announced last week at the Arabian Travel Market in Dubai. The Saudi government is also to begin issuing permits for tour guides from next month.
Until now, Saudi Arabia has been a place where people go to work rather than play: the population of 24 million includes seven million foreign workers, 24,000 of them Britisf nationals. Alcohol is banned, as is photography of government buildings and palaces. Islamic principles and social customs are strictly observed and the country adheres to Sharia law, which allows corporal and capital punishment.
In line with its Middle Eastern neighbours, the Saudi government has recognised the potential economic benefits of tourism as world oil reserves dwindle.
Raed Habiss, managing director of one of the tour operators, Destinations of the Kingdom, said Saudi Arabia was keen to attract British visitors and would offer attractive rates to travel agents.
Among the first deals on offer was seven nights at a five-star hotel in Jeddah, including guided tours, from £750 (excluding flights).
"It is a country of cultural and geographical diversity," Mr Habiss said. "As well as coast, mountains and desert, we have spectacular heritage sites, unexplored dive sites and theme parks designed by Disney engineers." Wildlife includes the Arabian leopard and the oryx.
Hoteliers are also showing confidence in Saudi Arabia. Hilton has chosen Jeddah for its first all-suite property, to open later this month, and the Swiss chain Mövenpick has signed contracts for three properties in the country, including a five-star hotel in Yanbu on the Red Sea coast. The luxury American chain Rosewood is to open a third hotel in Jeddah, which, in a first for the country, will have a dedicated female floor staffed entirely by women.
Last month, Bmi began a three-times weekly service from Heathrow to Jeddah to complement a similar service to Riyadh, launched last year. A spokesman said there had been a steady increase in passengers using the Riyadh service and similar traffic was expected to Jeddah.
A Saudi Arabian low-cost airline, Sama, is due to be launched this summer.
Mr Habiss said that concerns over Saudi Arabia's less-than-favourable image overseas were unfounded. "Saudi Arabia is part of the modern world now. We cannot continue to be isolated. The Western perception is different from the reality. Saudis are known for their hospitality, and visitors who come will feel very differently."
Male and female visitors will have to cover up. Foreign females must don the full-length abaya, and women under 40 must be accompanied by a male relative.
A tourist visa can be issued as part of a package to groups of a minimum four people.
No British tour operators have immediate plans to feature Saudi Arabia, but Kuoni, which offers trips to Oman, Jordan, Lebanon and the UAE, will wait to gauge demand.