The UAE has long since been a popular tourist attraction in the Middle East. Holiday-makers from all over the world flock to Dubai every year to take advantage of the climate, marvel at the highest building in the world and appreciate the metropolis that has, quite literally, risen from the desert. The capital, Abu Dhabi, is also considered a highly desirable destination. But other GCC countries welcome their fair share of tourists too. Thanks to the Formula 1 Grand Prix, Bahrain can guarantee an influx of visitors from abroad every year. Qatar can also be assured of plenty of tourist income as a result of events such as the IAAF World Athletics Championships (September 2019), World Beach Games (October 2019) and FIFA World Cup (December 2022). Oman is perhaps lagging a little behind but with its beautiful mountainous landscape it can always be sure of a steady string of visitors. Which just leaves Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.
Kuwait, by its own admission, is not the most obvious tourist destination. That said, unlike its GCC neighbours, it doesn’t strive to be on the holiday-makers hit-list. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has recently enlisted influencers to tempt tourists to its shores. The country has relaxed its immigration rules and, for the first time, tourists will be able to visit Saudi without the need for a visa. In addition, foreign women will not be expected to wear an abaya or a headscarf. This does not, however, give visitors free-rein when it comes to clothing. Women will still be expected to dress modestly and to keep shoulders and knees covered and the rules regarding public displays of affection and the drinking of alcohol will remain unchanged. Ensuring visitors are aware of these cultural expectations will be vital.
Currently, Saudi issues around 12 million pilgrimage visas every year along with 4 million business visas. Officials hope that the number of visitors will increase to 100 million by the year 2030. That’s an ambitious target, particularly when Saudi is still in the spotlight following the death of Jamal Khashoggi. There is still much confusion (and outrage) surrounding the murder of the journalist and with several memorials taking place to mark the first anniversary of his death, it may not be the best time to convince foreigners of Saudi Arabia’s appeal.
That said, the crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud, is still determined to put Saudi on the tourist map. His vision is for tourism to make up ten per cent of the national economy and to create a million jobs in the tourist industry by 2030. New hotels will be built to meet the predicted demand for half a million more rooms.
So how can the influencers persuade people to visit this controversial, sometimes feared, desert kingdom? Typical tourists from countries such as the UK or USA may be tempted by the beautiful sandy beaches, vast desert dunes or sprawling shopping malls but with such attractions already within easy reach in other GCC destinations, why venture into the unknown? People will always crave the unfamiliar, attracted by the mystery associated with new, alien destinations but they also have long memories. With Saudi’s previous distrust of foreigners, the recent arrest of human rights activists and the circumstances surrounding the alleged murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, it’s unlikely the number of foreign visitors will increase at the rate anticipated. Despite the assurance that it’s not just the opening of borders but also of hearts and minds, I suspect it will take a lot more than a few staged Instagram pictures to convince foreign visitors of Saudi’s holiday appeal.< Back