Hol­i­days in Saudi Ara­bia a hard sell

Nelson Mail - - TRAVEL -

Its al­co­hol ban and strict dress code are red flags ... but cu­ri­ous trav­ellers want to tick it off their lists, writes

af­ter­noon, 56-year-old Bir­git Mitchell had the place pretty much to her­self. An Amer­i­can teacher who lives in Saudi Ara­bia, she took the bus there, play­ing her gui­tar for Saudi women at rest stops along the way. ‘‘Wow, I can’t be­lieve we can just walk here,’’ she said, pop­ping in and out of the carved tombs.

Most vis­i­tors are Saudi res­i­dents, like Mitchell, or cit­i­zens of other Gulf coun­tries, who don’t need visas. The gov­ern­ment hasn’t said when it will start is­su­ing tourist visas.

‘‘The visa is the axis for the num­bers that will come,’’ said Ah­mad Al Fad­hel, co-owner of an­other camp nearby. But he sees a chicken-and-egg prob­lem with the gov­ern­ment’s plans too: ‘‘In­vestors don’t want to come be­cause tourists haven’t come, and tourists don’t want to come be­cause the ser­vices haven’t come.’’

Tur­moil in the Mid­dle East has kept vis­i­tors away even from es­tab­lished des­ti­na­tions like Egypt. Saudi Ara­bia – though more sta­ble than many neigh­bours – isn’t im­mune. In 2007, four French­men on their way back from Mada’in Saleh were killed by mil­i­tants.

That’s one rea­son lo­cal school­teacher Ahmed Al Imam, who works part-time as a tour guide, doesn’t plan to give up his day-job even if visa curbs are lifted and vis­i­tors pour in. ‘‘Imag­ine if I quit teach­ing,’’ he said, snap­ping his fin­gers, ‘‘and one night a crazy per­son did some­thing wrong. Tourism will stop.’’

The week the new camp opened, there was a pro­gram of Saudi films in Al Ula – projected onto a cliff, be­cause there are no movie the­atres in the king­dom. There had been some grum­bling be­fore­hand about the cor­rupt­ing in­flu­ence of such a show. In the event, men and women gath­ered in their cars to watch, and ven­dors hawked tea un­der the stars.

‘‘The coun­try does have some beau­ti­ful nat­u­ral re­sources for tourism,’’ said Gra­ham Grif­fiths, an an­a­lyst at Con­trol Risks in Dubai. But he said the Saudis will strug­gle to get a re­turn on their in­vest­ments ‘‘if they don’t open up.’’ – The Wash­ing­ton Post

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