The nationalities leading the pack as the first tourists to discover Saudi Arabia

Until very recently, Saudi Arabia was uncharted territory for tourists but following the September launch of its new visa entry system, 50,000 foreign travellers have taken their first steps into the Kingdom.

Where are they coming from? Britain, according to officials, followed by China. 

"We are expecting that the adventurous will come first to explore the country, and this is what is happening," said Ahmed Al-Khateeb, chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage in an interview this week.

In addition to the visits so far, around 140,000 tourist visas have been requested, a figure "in line with our expectations," Al-Khateeb remarked. The chairman was speaking in Riyadh at an event to launch Diriyah Gate, a £13bn regeneration of the Saudi royal family's hometown that aims to attract a wealth of visitors. 

The UK and China – which has seen an enormous rise in the number of its citizens travelling overseas in recent years – are two of the 49 countries now eligible for e-visas, a key part of Saudi Arabia's 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 three per cent.

This makes for a very large target: 100 million holidaymakers a year by 2030 (up from the current 15 million, most of whom are religious pilgrims). The aim would be 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.

Still, the pursuit continues. Earlier this month, Abdullah Al-Dawood, group CEO of Seera Group, the company in charge of promoting Saudi Arabia to the world, said: "We offer two key experiences: culture and adventure. [British visitors] will experience the culture of the Arabian peninsula, as well as all of the adventures that we can offer – seaside, Red Sea diving, camping in the Empty Quarter."

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

Its treatment of women (only recently have they been allowed to drive or travel without the permission of a male guardian), is one concern, as are the nation's views on homosexuality (illegal), and severe penalties for the possession of alcohol. 

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Addressing the latter issue to Telegraph Travel's Hugh Morris was 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.

"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. I'm pretty sure out of 7.7 billion people we can find a million people a year that don't drink."

But you only have to look at other well-established Arab nations that have succeeded in building a thriving tourist industry – Dubai chief among them – to see that at some point their alcohol policy might have to shift. Despite a strict ban on Dubai's Muslim residents from consuming alcohol, foreign visitors have long been allowed to at licensed hotel bars, clubs and restaurants. More recently, new laws will enable tourists to purchase alcohol from state-controlled stores in Dubai; this in response to the first drop in the volume of liquor sales for a decade.  

What more can we expect from a tourist-friendly Saudi Arabia?

The Red Sea Project is one of its most eye-catching tourism plans. Occupying 124 miles 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.

It 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. 

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 $500 billion city built from scratch to cover 10,000 square miles of desert.  

In the UK, adventure companies are starting to promote the country, with Wild Frontiers now offering a nine-day "Inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia" tour for £4,815pp ($A9,191). The UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has few concerns about British citizens travelling to the kingdom. Aside from a 50-mile exclusion zone along the troubled border with Yemen, it considers the whole country safe to visit.

The Telegraph, London

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