Saudi Arabia tourism and attractions: Plan to attract 100 million visitors a year

At the World Travel Market (WTM) in London this week some 5000 destinations, brands and hotels competed for the attention of 50,000 visitors in the vast Excel Centre. 

Countries that already welcome millions of travellers each year, such as Greece and Italy, occupied the most space, with extravagant structures housing a wealth of promotional material and dozens of eager representatives.

But competing for prominence over in the Middle Eastern section was a large plot proffering a country whose tourism pedigree is virtually untested, and which currently hosts justs a few thousand holidaymakers a year, if that. 

Saudi Arabia isn't on the radar of many travellers, but has a very big tourism target: 100 million holidaymakers a year by 2030 (up from the current 15 million, most of whom are religious pilgrims). The figure would be hugely ambitious even for a country with an impeccable international reputation. But Saudi Arabia, a year on from the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, continues to face global condemnation over alleged human rights abuses and its treatment of women. Few are taking it seriously. 

The 100 million goal is part of Vision 2030, the brainchild of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who wants tourism to account for 10 per cent of the country's GDP (up from 3 per cent).

A key part of its strategy came earlier this year, with the introduction of tourist e-visas for visitors from 49 countries, including Australia. Early reports suggest there were 77,000 applications in the first month.

"Regardless of the targets, the key is we are opening up the country," says Abdullah Al-Dawood, group CEO of Seera Group, the company in charge of promoting Saudi Arabia to the world. "If we overachieve [the target] that is great, if not, we [still] open the country to the rest of the world."  

Minutes before our interview, the Saudi tourism minister Ahmad al-Khateeb drops by the stand amid much excitement and many handshakes. As we sit down Al-Dawood is still beaming. 

"We offer two key experiences: culture and adventure. [Visitors] will experience the culture of the Arabian peninsula," he said, "as well as all of the adventures that we can offer – seaside, Red Sea diving, camping in the Empty Quarter."

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The question lurking behind every attraction Saudi Arabia might have to offer is whether the Kingdom is too different, too conservative, too out of step with the values of Western holidaymakers, to attract them in their droves.

"It is an opportunity," says Al-Dawood, "and we are excited to show our care, protection and hospitality to the people in the UK."

There are myriad barriers to Saudi Arabia welcoming 100 million annual visitors – more than France currently receives. The Kingdom's role in leading a military intervention in neighbouring Yemen, a campaign that has sparked a humanitarian crisis, is up there with the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the regime, in the Saudi embassy of Istanbul. A report released by Human Rights Watch this week contained allegations of arrest and torture of dissidents. 

And then there is its treatment of women (only recently have they been allowed to drive or travel without the permission of a male guardian), views on homosexuality (illegal), and severe penalties for the possession of alcohol. 

See: Dress code for women dropped as Saudi Arabia opens to tourists

Steve Bowen, director of PR for the Red Sea Development Company, a baffling plan to create an ultra luxury resort nearly the size of Belgium on the country's west coast – and one of the "giga projects" that make up Vision 2030, says the Saudi government is modernising the country to accommodate tourists.

"The country today is unrecognisable from how it was when I arrived in 2013," he says. "And I expect in another five years it will be unrecognisable from what it is today.

"Right now the law in Saudi Arabia says no alcohol. Our model assumes there is no alcohol, our financing assumes there is no alcohol. It's not the barrier that everyone thinks it is."

The Red Sea Project is one of the most eye-catching Saudi tourism plans. Occupying 200 kilometres of coastline across a 90-island archipelago, the destination will boast the world's fourth largest barrier reef system to go with the year-round sun. 

I suggest to Bowen it is a rival to the Maldives. "It's way bigger than the Maldives," he says. "We're like the Maldives-plus."

The Red Sea Project is scheduled to be completed by 2030, but will have a visitor cap of one million a year to help preserve the environment and prevent overtourism. Bowen, like everyone else involved in Vision 2030, is bullish about its prospects. Discussing a beach resort where there can be no sundowners, he says: "I'm pretty sure out of 7.7 billion people we can find a million people a year that don't drink."

Away from the Red Sea, the list of projects is long. Amaala is another Red Sea resort, further north; there are plans to open up Al Ula, Saudi's answer to Jordan's Petra; Neom is an inexplicable $US500 billion ($727 billion) city built from scratch to cover 26,000 square kilometres of desert. 

The last of these is described as "the most ambitious project on Earth" and, if leaked plans are to be believed, is destined to have more Michelin-starred restaurants per capita than any other city in the world, its own microclimate (thanks to "cloud-seeding") and a dinosaur theme park. At WTM its stall boasts the caption: "The land of the future: where the greatest minds and the best talents are empowered to pioneer ideas and exceed boundaries in a world inspired by imagination."

Away from the stalls featuring grandiose schemes backed by the Saudi wealth fund, a small travel company has set up shop. Al Syahi's stand features a slightly blurry photo of an unrecognisable part of the Kingdom, a colourful rug, and the promise of Saudi discovery tour.

Ekram Shoaib, manning the desk, speaks not about the draw of a futuristic mega-city, nor a conceptual Maldives-plus, but instead is optimistic on the basis of a growing respect for other cultures within Saudi Arabia.

"Loads of people want to come, because we've opened the door," she says. "There will not be any problems, it's really safe. You'll have to come and see."

Visiting Saudi Arabia | Everything you need to know

Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country in which Islamic law is strictly enforced. Check the Department of Foreign Affairs Smart Traveller page before you travel (current status is "reconsider your need to travel"). At the time of writing, the rules are as follows:

Ramadan

You should respect local traditions, customs, laws and religions at all times and be aware of your actions to ensure that they do not offend, especially during the holy month of Ramadan or if you intend to visit religious areas. It is forbidden to eat, drink or smoke in public during daylight hours during the month of Ramadan. The law is strictly enforced.

Dress code

Women should wear conservative, loose-fitting clothes as well as a full length cloak (abaya) and a headscarf. Men should not wear shorts in public.

Sex

Homosexual or extra-marital sexual relations, including adultery, are illegal and can be subject to severe penalties. It's also illegal to be transgender. Transgender people travelling to Saudi Arabia are likely to face significant difficulties and risks if this is discovered by the authorities.

Women travellers

If you are a female visitor or resident you must be met by your sponsor on arrival. Otherwise you may face delays before being allowed to enter the country or to continue on other flights. Foreign women married to Saudi nationals must have permission from their husband to leave Saudi Arabia.

Alcohol

Saudi Arabia has a complete ban on alcohol. It is illegal to produce, import or consume it. The Foreign Office warns of arriving in the country drunk.

Pork

Importing pork is illegal.

Porn

Possession of pornographic material, or of illustrations of scantily dressed people, especially women, is prohibited.

Photography

Taking photos of government buildings, military installations or palaces is not allowed, while the Foreign Office warns against photographing "local people". Binoculars may also be confiscated at the port of entry.

Visa

All visitors need a visa to enter Saudi Arabia, while those travelling to the Hajj require a special document. Non-Muslims are not allowed near the Hajj destinations.

Passports

It's illegal to hold two passports in Saudi Arabia. Second passports will be confiscated by the immigration authorities if they're discovered. Always carry your passport for identification.

Israel

You may be refused entry to the county if your passport contains evidence of previous travel to Israel or indicates Israel as your birthplace.

The Telegraph, London

See also: Why you should visit a Muslim country

See also: The 25 traveller highlights of the Islamic world

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