The government of Saudi Arabia has announced that it will open up the country to international tourism for the first time ever as part of a wider initiative to boost the Saudi economy for long-term sustainability and open Saudi society to the global marketplace. Until this major shift in Saudi policy was announced yesterday, the kingdom had largely only been accessible to foreign labourers, visitors doing business in the country, and Muslim pilgrims visiting the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage said that it hoped to attract 100 million visitors, including both foreigners and Saudis, to its tourist sites within the next decade and to create 1 million new jobs in tourism for Saudi citizens.
In addition to the large cosmopolitan cities of Riyadh, the capital, and Jeddah, the country’s financial center, Saudi Arabia is hoping that tourists will fan out into the far reaches of the kingdom in order to visit some of the well-preserved ancient ruins that have been virtually untouched by mass tourism, unlike sites in neighbouring countries like Jordan and nearby Egypt.
In order to reconcile the opening of the country to foreign tourists with the ultra-conservative laws and customs that have characterized the kingdom for decades and which had largely made it an undesirable destination for many foreign visitors, the government also announced that it will be relaxing its strict Islamic dress code and rolling back many gender-based restrictions on its citizens and visitors alike.
As a result of the social changes, Saudi women are now allowed to drive, the strict religious dress code has been abolished (although both men and women are still expected to dress very modestly by Western standards), and unmarried couples will be allowed to share a hotel room together.
These policy changes represent a sweeping set of reforms for the ultra-conservative country and are attributable to the reform, modernization, and economic empowerment agenda initiated and spearheaded by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Saudi Arabia currently has five UNESCO-designated world heritage sites, including the Al-Hijr archaeological site of Mada’in Saleh (2008), the At-Turaif District in ad-Dir’iyah (2010), Old Jeddah and the Gate to Mecca (2014), the rock art of Hail (2015), and most recently the Al-Ahsa Oasis (2018). UNESCO also has a “tentative list” of 11 additional sites that it is evaluating and considering for further inclusion on its world heritage list.