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Saudi Arabia opens doors to tourists in move away from reliance on oil

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A tour guide stands inside a tomb at Madain Saleh
A tour guide stands inside a tomb at Madain Saleh -
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Reuters
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Saudi Arabia has launched a new visa regime as it attempts to open itself up as a tourist destination for foreigners.

In recent years it has relaxed strict social codes, like segregating men and women in public places and requiring women to wear all-covering black robes or abayas.

While there won't be restrictions for unaccompanied women, as in the past, those entering on the visas will be expected to continue to dress "modestly" and alcohol will remain banned.

The visa scheme is open to 49 countries, and the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom is also appealing to foreign companies to invest in a sector it hopes will contribute 10% of gross domestic product by 2030.

The move is part of the world’s top oil exporter’s attempt to move away from its economic reliance on oil reserves and includes a drive to create one million tourism jobs.

So, what is there to see in Saudi Arabia?

The country has been largely inaccessible for many foreigners for decades, due to its ultra-conservative Islamic culture, and Sharia-based legal system, and is therefore largely unknown as a tourist destination.

It is a huge country, geographically the largest state in the Middle East, with massive deserts, a long coastline, and a wealth of historical treasures to attract visitors.

"If you look at the development of tourism in various parts of the Arabian peninsula, Saudi Arabia is offering attractions that are unique," says Tom Hall, a journalist and editorial director at Lonely Planet.

There are five UNESCO World Heritage Sites dotted across the kingdom, including the majestic Al-Hijr Archaeological Site, otherwise known as Madain Saleh. Hall says this is the headline attraction, built by the Nabatean people, who also built the ancient city of Petra.

"It has the potential to become a well-celebrated place," he says.

There is also the country's first capital, At-Turaif, a well-preserved archaeological site originally built in the 15th century. The old city of Jeddah is located along the eastern shore of the Red Sea, with many of its original buildings still intact.

More: Jeddah airport's new terminal opened in tourism push

More: Why is Al-Ula paving the way towards tourism in Saudi Arabia?

The Al-Ahsa Oasis and The rock art of the Hail region — which gives a glimpse into 10,000 years of history — make up the rest of the five.

"The country has other things that are popular experiences, like desert safaris, the chance to understand traditional cultures, unspoilt coastal areas, all of these are very appealing," Hall adds.

Will the tourists come?

Until now, foreigners travelling to Saudi Arabia have been largely restricted to resident workers and their dependents, business travellers, and Muslim pilgrims who are given special visas to visit Mecca and Medina.

Hall says the fact that "shareable, unique and distinctive experiences bode well for destinations right now", with the experiences being more important than ticking off the name of a country.

He says it's difficult to put a figure on the numbers expected, but the Saudi authorities are clearly ambitious in what they want to achieve, with the big question of domestic and international ease of access being ticked off in this case.

"The experience of the first wave of people will be important," he said because others will want to know what that experience was like — especially for women — before deciding whether to go themselves. It will remain to be seen how issues such as cost and safety plays into that decision making too.

Hall says the new visa scheme sends out a "statement of intent" and an "openness to communicating they are somewhere people can come to". Importantly, he points to the fact there is already an annual influx of visitors for the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, and this move could serve to diversify the sort of trips people make to the country.

"There is potentially an interesting reshaping of tourism on the Arabian peninsula," he says, adding: "We are watching with interest."

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