Vivian Nereim Glen Carey.
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.