1 Saudi Ara­bia wants you!

As Saudi Ara­bia raises the idea of is­su­ing visas to tourists for the first time, we ask whether the wider travel world is ready to em­brace the con­ser­va­tive state...

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Speak to most UK trav­ellers and they’ll tell you Saudi Ara­bia barely reg­is­ters on their radars. The coun­try’s strict laws and cus­toms put many off, and that’s be­fore you con­sider the dif­fi­culty of even get­ting in. How­ever, that could all be about to change.

The Mid­dle East­ern su­per­power has now an­nounced that it will in­tro­duce spe­cial­ist tourist visas – they cur­rently only cover pil­grims and those go­ing there to work. And while de­tails are still hazy at the mo­ment, it’s hoped they’ll be first is­sued in 2018, ini­tially to those trav­el­ling with tour groups.

“We want to tar­get peo­ple who want to lit­er­ally ex­pe­ri­ence this coun­try and its grand­ness,” says Prince Sul­tan bin Sal­man of the Saudi Com­mis­sion for Tourism and Na­tional Her­itage.

It might sound like an ob­vi­ous line to em­ploy but the Saudis are se­ri­ous; they’re hop­ing to at­tract 30m vis­i­tors by 2030 (nearly dou­ble 2016’s fig­ure of 18m, with most of that made up by pil­grims head­ing to Mecca) and will plough £35bn into its tourism ef­forts each year by 2020.

But will the crowds fol­low? Tour op­er­a­tors have cer­tainly re­sponded proac­tively.

“As the news has been com­ing for a while, we’ve al­ready de­signed one Saudi Ara­bia itin­er­ary,” ex­plains Jonny Bealby of tour op­er­a­tor Wild Fron­tiers. “As an agency that fo­cuses on the Mid­dle East, we con­sider Saudi Ara­bia a key part of our prod­uct plan and hope the visas do ma­te­ri­alise.”

Yet many of you, our ever-dis­cern­ing read­ers, seem wary about vis­it­ing a coun­try with a very con­ser­va­tive cul­ture, and where, un­til now, tourism wasn’t en­cour­aged. In our poll ( see right), nearly two thirds of you said you wouldn’t be in­ter­ested in vis­it­ing the coun­try. But Jonny still sees po­ten­tial. “I don’t see Saudi Ara­bia be­ing ev­ery­one’s cup of tea,” he adds. “That said, given the speed with which we sold our first tour, there is ev­i­dently de­mand.”

So while there still seems to be a frosty re­cep­tion from some trav­ellers, oth­ers are cu­ri­ous to see what this once closed-off na­tion of­fers. And with fel­low Gulf gi­ants the UAE and Jordan now firmly on travel radars, who is to say that Saudi Ara­bia won’t be next?

‘Saudi Ara­bia are hop­ing to at­tract 30m vis­i­tors by 2030, and will plough £35bn into tourism’

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