Putting Saudi on the tourist map

24 November 2007
Driven by the need to create jobs and diversify its economy, Saudi Arabia is actively encouraging domestic and international tourism. But almost three years into a 20-year tourism masterplan, it still has much to do to attract visitors to the kingdom.

Bad publicity, the difficulty of getting a visa and a lack of marketing has kept it off all but the most determined tourists' radars.

There is plenty for them to see if they do visit. Apart from Mecca and Medina, well-known to Muslim pilgrims, there are coral reefs on the Red Sea, ancient tombs at Madain Saleh and the mountains of Asir.

However, it has decided not to try to emulate the likes of Egypt or Dubai, which are inundated with foreign travellers. Instead, it is focusing on small groups interested in diving, climbing or visiting historical sights.

But constraints on the growth of the industry remain. The visa process is still complicated, and women in particular may find the dress code limiting. For now, foreign tourists can only enter the kingdom in organised groups.

These restrictions mean that tourists will never be battling their way through hordes of others to reach the sights, which could add to the country's allure.

But it is still a conservative country, which does not want to see its values and social norms threatened by outsiders. Riyadh has its work cut out if it is to expand tourism's contribution to the diversification of the economy.

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