It’s 2019, and a mere couple months after lifting travel restrictions on their own women within the country, Saudi Arabia announced Friday it will offer tourist visas for the first time.
It’s part of broader efforts to diversity its economy away from oil, and interestingly comes at a time when tourism in the strict Wahhabi Islamic kingdom is no doubt the last thing on holidaymakers’ minds, given the Sept. 14 attack on Aramco facilities, and given there’s still a war raging across the southern border in Yemen.
Amid what’s been hailed as a gradual liberalization of Saudi Arabia’s repressive laws and social mores, Riyadh officials also announced an easing of its strict dress code for foreign women, which until now required the body-shrouding abaya robe, still demanded of its own female citizens however (with the more extreme Niqab covering the face). Tourists will still be required to be in “modest” attire, a definition not likely to include bikinis at the beach.
According to a statement in the AFP:
“We make history” today, tourism chief Ahmed al-Khateeb said in a statement.
“For the first time, we are opening our country to tourists from all over the world.”
Citizens from 49 countries are eligible for online e-visas or visas on arrival, including the United States, Australia and several European nations, the statement said.
Currently westerners are primarily to be found in heavily protected Saudi Aramco planned communities, and have heavy restrictions placed on their movements outside compound walls.
Though part of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform program to take the Saudi economy in a post-oil direction, we doubt there will be an influx of tourism anytime soon.
Aside from the more obvious issues of the war in Yemen and ongoing proxy conflict and gulf standoff with Iran which would keep carefree travelers far away, it remains that the tourism ministry has insisted its blanket ban on alcohol will remain in effect.
The first instance of random Aussie or German backpackers being hauled off to jail after being caught with a little smuggled whiskey will sure to bring a chilling effect as well.
The kingdom hopes to showcase its medieval Islamic sites (with Mecca and Medina continuing to be off-limits to all non-Muslims of course) and historic Bedouin culture.
Ad proposal: “Saudi tourism – come see what we saw.”
— Aron Lund (@aronlund) September 27, 2019
But we doubt that Chop Chop Square in Riyadh — where beheadings and even the occasional crucifixion continue at record pace — will be high on visitors’ list of must see attractions.