Holidays in Saudi Arabia a hard sell
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