So who wants to go to Saudi Arabia? The government is about to find out.
The country said on Friday it would open the country to international tourists, announcing a new visa program for citizens of 49 countries aimed at diversifying the economy and reducing the kingdom's dependence on oil.
Under its de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia is eager to bolster its international position – particularly in the West – and attract investment, but it is unclear how attractive it will be to tourists: the country is notoriously repressive, condemning an austere interpretation of Islam that includes strict social codes.
Some of the rules governing public behavior have been significantly relaxed under Prince Mohammed, but Western visitors to the country will find a much more restrictive atmosphere to what they are used to.
[Now that Saudi Arabia plans to welcome foreign tourists, here's what you need to know.]
There are strict rules governing social conduct, little tolerance for dissent, allegations of human rights violations abound, and the country found itself subject to global condemnation last year following the terrible assassination of dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi by agents at the US consulate. Saudi Arabia in Istanbul.
But Saudi officials clearly believe the country's attractions can overcome these concerns.
Ahmed al-Khateeb, Saudi Arabia's head of tourism, said in a statement that opening the kingdom to international tourists was "a historic moment for our country."
The statement noted that the country expected tourism to constitute up to 10% of Saudi Arabia's annual gross domestic product, compared with the current 3%, and that “billions of dollars are being spent to improve infrastructure and develop historic, cultural and cultural sites. and entertainment. "
Travelers from eligible countries may apply for a one-year multi-entry visa and allow tourists to spend up to 90 days in the country. Further details on visas are expected following a formal announcement on Friday night of the program at an event in Diriyah, home of the first capital of the Saudi dynasty and UNESCO World Heritage.
"Visitors will be surprised and delighted by the treasures we have to share," al-Khateeb said in a statement, citing the country's five world heritage sites and "a vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty."
The kingdom will open applications for online tourist visas on Saturday and aims to become one of the top five tourist destinations in the world, Al-Khateeb told Bloomberg. It was not clear when the first visitors of the new program should arrive.
Al-Khateeb told Reuters that the abayas – the body protection cloak that Saudi women should wear in public – would not be compulsory for women foreign tourists, but that modest dresses would be needed, including on public beaches.
He also noted that there would be no exception to allow tourists to drink alcohol, expressing confidence that the country had enough attractions for tourists to "enjoy other things."
Adam Coogle, a researcher at Human Rights Watch in Saudi Arabia, said Saudi Arabia has long considered a broader approach to tourism as “part of a series of other steps being taken to make international investment in Saudi Arabia a bit. most pleasant to the international. investors and companies. "
"They are trying to create the narrative and permit structure for companies to invest in the country under the guise that the country is reforming," he said.
The country has passed major reforms – particularly around women's rights, entertainment and tourism – but they have been limited to certain sectors.
"There is still a long way to go, obviously none of this has translated into reforms in terms of political and civil rights," he said. "And it won't."
Coogle also warned that any visitor to the country would have to be careful when discussing anything that would be considered politically sensitive, because it is not a country that allows freedom of expression.
Saudi Arabia already receives millions of religious pilgrims each year – more than 1.8 million people visited Mecca in August alone to participate in hajj, the annual pilgrimage that is one of Islam's most sacred rites.
Mecca and the holy city of Medina are now the biggest attraction for foreigners, but non-Muslims have long been banned from entering both, a policy that predates the founding of the Saudi state. Presumably only Muslim tourists would have access to the sites, but this has not been confirmed.
The tourism authority introduced an elegant English language website prior to the announcement and launched a social media campaign – called "Where in the world?" – which boasts breathtaking views of Saudi Arabia's landscape, encouraging visitors to "be the first to explore a new and exciting destination".
The site has a section devoted to the nation's "laws and etiquette," which it says are "informed by our cultural heritage and Islamic religion" and includes guidance on how to dress and act in public. It is forbidden to buy, sell or consume alcohol, the site makes it clear.
"Men and women are asked to dress modestly in public, avoiding tight clothes or clothes with language or profane images," the orientation adds. "Women should cover shoulders and knees in public."
Prince Mohammed guided his country to a more moderate form of Islam. Cinemas have sprung up and the kingdom has hosted mixed genre concerts and sporting events, all previously banned.