Country is now happy to host tourists
Saudi Arabian tourism officials are hoping to make inroads in this country, and are counting on a tour operator that has a lengthy background in sending tourists to the Middle East and their national airline to help them do so.
Saudi Arabia is a relative newcomer to tourism, having only decided to begin welcoming mainstream tourists in 2019, now enticing them through promotions citing the likes of a long history and varying landscapes.
The country’s efforts to reach out to Canadians curious about seeing the world got a major boost when Goway Travel — which already sends people to such Middle Eastern nations as Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates — announced in October that it has added Saudi Arabia to its lineup, with the tour operator’s Moira Smith saying it’s a good destination for “people who like to explore” new destinations.
Moira’s colleague Brittany Banks recently visited what she labelled the “very friendly” country whose inhabitants repeatedly offered her welcoming gifts. Saudi national carrier Saudi will begin Toronto service Dec. 2, making Saudi Arabia more accessible to people in this country.
Saudi Arabia has long been viewed warily by many Westerners, with many questioning its human rights record and long adherence to a conservative form of Islam that some argued made it unattractive to those who enjoyWestern lifestyles.
But Nimit Amin of the Saudi Tourism Authority says the country has been liberalizing in recent years, making it more attractive to the likes of North Americans and Europeans. Alcohol remains unavailable in restaurants and hotels, he said, but dress codes for women have been relaxed noticeably, with women no longer required to cover their faces in public or wear headscarves in most locales. As well, women can wear Western clothes in public now, with Amin suggesting that they needn’t wear long sleeves when outside, but shouldn’t wear sleeveless shirts either. A woman wearing a sleeveless shirt isn’t likely to be berated for doing so but Amin suggested that doing so would be seen as being disrespectful of Saudi culture by some.
Amin — in Toronto recently for a Goway event promoting the Middle East and Africa — said visitors will find Saudis hospitable, recounting the years he’s spent working in Riyadh and never encountering any hostility. “It’s completely the opposite,” said Amin, a non-Muslim originally from London.
Saudis tend to be curious about the West, he said, despite the country having worked in the past to limit Western influences within its borders. The Saudis — eager to diversify what’s traditionally been an oil-based economy — want to “create an environment to welcome tourists from around the world,” Amin added.
But why would tourists want to visit the Middle Eastern kingdom? Well, said Amin, there are a number of reasons, including its having a history that “dates back to almost the dawn of civilization.”
That history is underscored by the Hegra Archaeological Site (al-Hijr / Madā ͐ in Ṣāliḥ), the first UNESCO World Heritage Site to be inscribed in Saudi Arabia. It is the largest conserved Nabataean site south of Petra, Jordan, and features well-preserved monumental tombs with decorated facades dating from the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD. The site also features some 50 inscriptions of the pre-Nabataean period and some cave drawings. “Al-Hijr bears a unique testimony to Nabataean civilization. With its 111 monumental tombs, 94 of which are decorated, and water wells, the site is an outstanding example of the Nabataeans’ architectural accomplishment and hydraulic expertise,” UNESCO says.
Saudi Arabia has multiple UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Amin said watersports enthusiasts will also appreciate the country having 1,000 miles of coral reefs, and a long Red Sea coast, the same sort of coast that has led to the development of such popular resorts as Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, and Aqaba, Jordan.
Amin also said that Saudi Arabia will be of interest to those specifically interested in Middle Eastern history. “We consider Saudi Arabia the authentic home of Arabia.” He also reported that Saudi Arabia has “extremely varied” landscapes, with the northwestern part of the country a mountainous region that the government plans to develop ski resorts in.
The Goway event also attracted Amanda Pilar of Exo Travel Saudi Arabia, who recalled her own recent visit to the country, saying Saudis were happy to discuss their religion with non-Muslims. The American woman said women who visit Medina should dress modestly, given its importance to Islam. (Medina joins the other Saudi city of Mecca as being the two holiest cities in Islam, with the latter being off-limits to non-Muslims.)
However, Pilar reported wearing Western-style clothes while walking around in public elsewhere without any issue. Pilar added that Saudi Arabia has “the best”desert scenery she has seen, with those landscapes including “huge canyons.”
Exo Travel — in business for 30 years — touts a number of attributes, including nature, with Asir National Park and the Empty Quarter being home to distinctive wildlife, including the Arabian leopard and the Arabian onyx. The tour company adds that Saudi Arabia is a blend of Bedouin nd Islamic traditions, and also has a growing arts scene, underscored by a growing number of art galleries.
Exo Travel also praised Saudi Arabia’s tourism infrastructure, which includes luxury hotels,and cuisine. Pilar acknowledged that some in the West view Saudi Arabia skeptically but those who go in the near future will appreciate what she said is an interesting destination not overrun with visitors. “It’s still new,” she said. “If people go they’re among the first.”