Vi­vian Nereim Glen Carey.

Nelson Mail - - TRAVEL -

It’s the day be­fore the grand open­ing of Shaden, a lux­ury desert camp in Saudi Ara­bia where air-con­di­tioned tents look out on sand­stone cliffs. A princely del­e­ga­tion is on its way. But the place isn’t quite ready.

Pea­cocks for the gar­den of the 10,000-riyals-a-night (NZ$3820) royal suite haven’t ar­rived. The cow brought in to pro­vide fresh milk for the cafe has been moo­ing all night. It ‘‘won’t shut up’’, laments Ahmed Al Said, the project devel­oper, as he gives or­ders over the clang of ham­mers and shov­els.

Saudi Ara­bia as a whole isn’t ready for tourists ei­ther. But its rulers are in­tent on rev­o­lu­tion­is­ing the econ­omy, and tourism is high on their list.

They fig­ure it can cre­ate jobs for a youth­ful pop­u­la­tion, earn rev­enue to re­duce oil-de­pen­dence, and help open the king­dom to the world. Which it might – if any­one can be per­suaded to come.

To be sure, the coun­try at­tracts plenty of for­eign trav­ellers – about 18 mil­lion last year, the most in the Arab world. But they’re al­most all Mus­lim pil­grims vis­it­ing Mecca.

Reg­u­lar tourism barely ex­ists. And there are so many ob­sta­cles that a Saudi Ara­bia full of hol­i­day­mak­ers is as hard to en­vis­age as a Saudi Ara­bia that’s no longer hooked on fos­sil fu­els.

Saudi Ara­bia doesn’t even is­sue tourist visas. Its al­co­hol ban, strict dress code and curbs on gen­der mix­ing are red flags for many peo­ple who’d be happy to visit Dubai’s beaches or Egypt’s pyra­mids.

Then there are the se­cret po­lice, who of­ten keep a close watch on for­eign vis­i­tors, and the re­li­gious po­lice, who chastise peo­ple for moral vi­o­la­tions. Even many Saudis pre­fer to va­ca­tion in Dubai, where they can wear what they want and go to night­clubs or movie the­atres.

‘‘There are as­pects of Saudi that will put peo­ple off,’’ said Jar­rod Kyte, prod­uct di­rec­tor at United King­dom tour com­pany Steppes Travel.

Not all peo­ple, though – which is why Steppes is of­fer­ing its first tour to Saudi Ara­bia next month. It cost al­most US$6000 (NZ$8600) a per­son, and was hard to ar­range be­cause it re­quired in­vi­ta­tional visas. But Kyte said it was ir­re­sistible to sea­soned trav­ellers who wanted to check an un­usual coun­try off their list.

He’s hop­ing to do it again: ‘‘It be­came very ap­par­ent there was de­mand there.’’


That’s what the Saudi Gov­ern­ment is keen to cap­i­talise on. Its post-oil plan, known as Vi­sion 2030, in­cludes mea­sures to en­cour­age the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try and de­velop coast­lines and his­tor­i­cal sites – like Al Ula, where the Shaden re­sort is go­ing up.

Nearby are the 2000-year-old ru­ins of Mada’in Saleh, a relic of the same ancient civil­i­sa­tion that built the bet­ter-known city of Pe­tra in Jor­dan.

In charge of the tourism drive is Prince Sul­tan bin Sal­man, head of the Saudi Com­mis­sion for Tourism and Na­tional Her­itage and a son of the king. He said the king­dom is fi­nally wak­ing up to ideas he’s been pro­mot­ing for years.

‘‘A lot has been in­vested, not in the tourism sites as we would like to see it, but the sup­port­ing in­fra­struc­ture – air­ports and roads and so on,’’ Prince Sul­tan said in an in­ter­view in Riyadh. He dis­missed con­cerns that open­ing up the con­ser­va­tive king­dom to for­eign­ers would cause trou­ble.

‘‘Peo­ple would say the so­cial en­vi­ron­ment isn’t right,’’ he said. ‘‘I keep telling them: the so­cial en­vi­ron­ment will fol­low. And that is what’s hap­pen­ing to­day.’’

Prince Sul­tan reels off a list of mu­se­ums that are about to open and oth­ers he plans to com­mis­sion. They will let Mus­lims learn about Is­lam in the place where it was born, he said. The re­li­gious di­men­sion may help win back­ing from Saudi Ara­bia’s pow­er­ful cler­ics, who of­ten op­pose change.

In­vest­ment in cul­tural her­itage is un­der­way too: The gov­ern­ment has set aside 5 bil­lion riyals. It’s also en­cour­ag­ing pri­vate spend­ing by com­pa­nies like Jed­dah-based Al Jazi­rah Sa­fari, which is build­ing the Shaden re­sort, a 100 mil­lion­riyal project.

Some Saudis who live there are look­ing for­ward to the op­por­tu­ni­ties. Farmer Ahmed Al Ma­soud plans to turn his or­ange groves into a re­sort where he’ll teach tourists about tra­di­tional agri­cul­ture. Busi­ness­man Faras Al Harby is im­port­ing sou­venirs from China.

They’re all wait­ing for one thing: tourists. On a re­cent


Saudi vis­i­tors watch an aerial fly­ing dis­play over Mada’in Saleh, a Unesco World Her­itage site.


Ahmed Al Ma­soud, cen­tre, a farmer who plans to turn his farm into a re­sort where he will teach tourists about tra­di­tional agri­cul­ture, of­fers vis­i­tors fresh milk in Al Ula.


Bir­git Mitchell, an Amer­i­can tourist, right, vis­its Mada’in Saleh with her guide.

Ahmed Al Imam, a tour guide, re­laxes in an out­door seat­ing area at Shaden, a new lux­ury five-star desert camp.

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