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...
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’