Even now, tourist visas to Saudi Arabia are next to non-existent for leisure travellers. Of course, with billions and billions of forex reserves, the kingdom is hardly lacking in cash that the likes of Egypt and Morocco desperately need to make their balance of payments, well, balance. So, it is no real surprise that reform of Saudi Arabian tourism is moving at a glacial pace given its political economy. That is, why upset the ultra-conservative Wahhabists or even tempt societal change by encouraging liberalization of social norms that are assumed to be necessary in attracting more (Western) tourists?
Things move slowly in Saudi Arabia. Prince Sultan launched the tourism commission in 2000. Nine years later he announced that Saudi Arabia would be issuing tourist visas in “the near future.” But, with $288 billion in oil revenues last year, it’s not like Saudi Arabia is desperate for foreign currency. There is much to take into consideration before the country opens its doors: What would the kingdom’s reactive religious conservatives say about an influx of infidels? Would Western women consent to wearing the floor-length black abaya and headscarf that is required of Saudi women? Would those women demand to drive their own rented cars — something Saudi women are not allowed to do? And how could the authorities protect tourists in a country still threatened by domestic terrorism? After all, a militant suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda assassinated four French visitors not far from Mada’in Saleh in 2007. Fears of cultural and political contagion, too, are rife: Western notions of individual freedoms could be intensely destabilizing for a country that has so far weathered the storms of the Arab Spring. While change is happening at an unprecedented rate inside the kingdom — just last month, women started serving on the closest thing the country has to a parliament — a flood of insensitive outsiders could force too much too quickly, provoking a vehement backlash from the country’s conservative core. It’s easier, and less risky, not to let anyone in at all.Oddly enough, the thrust of Saudi Arabia's tourist promotion is mainly domestic in keeping Saudi holidaymakers from going abroad as usual but to have a greater number do so at home:
Saudi Arabia may be shutting the door to foreign tourists, but it is still spending hundreds of millions of dollars to burnish the country’s cultural gems, in preparation for a different kind of visitor: Saudis themselves. Just outside of Riyadh, an army of workmen are putting the finishing touches on an ambitious restoration of Saudi Arabia’s first capital, the vast mud-brick city of Addiriyah, founded in 1740 by the first King Saud and the religious reformer Imam Mohammad Abdulwahab, father of the strictly back-to-basics Wahhabi Islam that dominates Saudi theology. Once completed, the site will house five museums, a heritage hotel, a handicraft market and a sound-and-light show. Elsewhere in the country, 25 archaeological teams are unearthing clues to Saudi Arabia’s pre-Islamic past, an undertaking once frowned upon by clerics who saw no need to study the dark days before the arrival of Islam. Prince Sultan has launched a heritage-hotel company in a joint venture with a local hospitality consortium, as well as a loan program for farmers to convert their holdings into rural inns. “Saudi Arabia is literally at the crossroads of the world’s great civilizations,” says Sultan. But it is the country’s vast wealth and oil wells, not its cultural heritage, that dominate the popular imagination. Sultan wants to change that. “Saudis are just starting to realize that with these heritage buildings and traditional villages they are sitting on a different kind of oil well.”Things are rather different there, as you would expect.
UPDATE: See the State Department's long list of none-too-subtle no-nos for travellers to Saudi Arabia. Leisure travel? Forget it.