Tourists start making Saudi Arabia their port of call - GulfToday

Tourists start making Saudi Arabia their port of call

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Polish tourists listen to a guide as they visit the King Abdulaziz museum. AFP

Tourists have started flocking to Saudi Arabia, thanks to the nation's relaxation of some lifestyle rules and waivers on visa fees. There was a time when not many tourists would make a beeline for Saudi Arabia. Its guidelines, particularly with its emphasis on gender segregation, appeared to keep them at bay. Getting visas would be a big task, and the wait would be long. Also women could not travel alone, they needed to have a male guardian.

All that is changing, due to Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman's Vision 2030 objective, which aims to prop up tourism and veer away from an economy dependent a lot on oil.

Now women can drive as well. Until recently, music was not played on dining venues.

In Riyadh's old quarter, a small group of Polish holidaymakers exploring the mud-brick Masmak Fort were making history as some of the first foreign tourists to visit Saudi Arabia since it opened its doors.

Inside the small 19th century castle, their Saudi guide, wearing a white traditional dishdasha robe, described ancient customs of the kingdom.

"It's normal that we should take into consideration the traditions of each country," said her husband Andrzej, a doctor, who was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans.

For the Polish adventurers, the main hurdle to visiting Saudi Arabia had been getting the visa they had been seeking for the past two years.

Citizens from 49 countries are now eligible for online e-visas or visas on arrival.

Reform vision

Developing the tourism industry is a key pillar of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 reform programme that aims to prepare the Arab world's largest economy, which is highly reliant on oil, for a diversified future.

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Tourists listen to a guide as they visit the King Abdulaziz museum. AFP 

Glitzy promotional campaigns focus on ancient sites as well as breathtaking desert and coastal landscapes.

But authorities are also banking on large cities like the capital Riyadh and the western Red Sea port of Jeddah playing their part through large-scale investments in entertainment offerings.

Despite these efforts, the capital home to seven million people, including two million foreigners has a sleepy air, with little of the glamour and buzz of its counterparts elsewhere in the Gulf.

With its wide sidewalks and high-end shops, Al-Tahlia Street in central Riyadh is often compared with the Champs-Elysees. But it has little of the energy and style of its famous Paris counterpart.

On an average weeknight, just a few families or groups of friends can be found seated on the restaurant terraces. Conversations are quiet and until recent years, music was not played inside dining venues.

"We are in favour of tourism, but foreigners must respect our traditions and customs in the way they dress and behave," one man firmly said, as he passed by in his traditional robe and chequered headdress.

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