WHEN I disclose to someone in the UK about where I come from, I get a look that says, “I’d go anywhere but there.”They are polite, of course, and respectful, but the conversation usually ends there.
Interest for travel seems to plummet with the mention of Saudi Arabia.Not everyone feels that way though. Japanese and most Asians see visiting Saudi Arabia as adventurous. Muslims, naturally, even if it isn’t for the specific reason of Umrah, want to experience our country.Since 9/11 Saudi Arabia has taken many steps to open the country to visitors.
I admit the Saudi government moves at a snail’s pace when it comes to tourism, but in areas of trade, commerce and attracting investors for projects we have moved rapidly forward.Tourism is a natural step that becomes part of the equation.
People should not need a visit visa, a sponsor or a work visa to visit the country. People who want to visit the historic sites and experience the Saudi lifestyle should have that opportunity.The process is, however, not easy. A potential tourist can’t simply walk into a Saudi embassy or mail his or her passport to a consulate for a tourist visa.
Tourist visas are arranged by travel agents when their holiday packages are purchased. Citizens of 66 nations are approved for tourism. US, UK and most European countries, including Denmark, are part of the approved list. We won’t eat their butter but we will use their tourism dollars.
The website for the Saudi Commission on Tourism and Antiquities is of little help for the average traveler. No specific tourist visa information or guidelines is available. If someone wants to have a general idea on tourist packages and visa requirements, they won’t find it so easily.
The reported requirement is that only women over the age of 40 will be considered for a visa, as if younger women will be too much for our Saudi men. Another requirement of male guardianship for all female tourists will be a concern for foreigners.
Tour groups should also have a minimum of four people and tours range from three days to two weeks. Promoting tourism can have several social benefits. Of all the complaining we do about being misunderstood by the western world, what could be better than inviting tourists to improve understanding.
Tourism can also create a number of jobs for Saudis. Prince Sultan Bin Salman, secretary general of the Higher Tourism Commission, said he expects the industry to create up to 2.3 million jobs by 2020.Tourism officials are seeking investors to help boost local tourism and promote tourism culture among Saudis.
Scuba diving, restaurants, transport, hotel industry will all grow and even the small businesses, such as those in old Jeddah will benefit.Travel agencies have already reaped the benefits of bringing in tourists. One company reported that 2,500 tourists from the United States, Germany, Italy and several Asian countries have visited Saudi Arabia since January. Saudi tourism has had a bumpy ride since it was first considered in 2000.
I never felt that Saudis were enthusiastic about the idea. The belief among many of my friends and acquaintances is that since we live in the land of the Two Holy Mosques, why bring in outsiders, especially non-Muslims, to our country?
In my opinion, Saudis and non-Saudis should get to know each other and try to ease the suspicion and fear we often have of one another. We must also ease our dependence on oil revenues.Perhaps when Saudi Arabia does really become an international tourist destination, I will no longer get those “I’d go anywhere but there” looks.