Saudi Arabia goes after tourists: can it attract them despite its record of human rights violations?

The endless desert, one of the attractions for visitors to the Saudi kingdom (Moataz Saber & Aizaz Leghari/)

(From Riyadh, special envoy) Saudi Arabia It is one of the most conservative countries in the world and adheres to a strict interpretation of Islam: alcohol consumption is prohibited, and the laws are especially repressive for women. Therefore, despite the fact that in 2019 it began to receive tourists for the first time in half a century, it is unclear how attractive it will be as a destination for international travelers.

There have been changes in recent years, an opening up and relaxation of some of its more rigid rules – which many view with skepticism – as part of the crown prince’s strategy. Mohamed Bin Salman (or MBS, as it was nicknamed). Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler put the tourism industry at the center of his plan Vision 2030 hoping to diversify the economy of his country, completely dependent on oil.

Just before the pandemic, Saudi Arabia created the first system of visas for tourism without religious reasons -their main destinations are the Mecca Y Medina, totally prohibited for now for non-Muslims. For a country that spent five decades in hiding from the outside world, MBS’s goal seems quite ambitious: attracting 30 million foreign visitors per year, when in 2021 it attracted only 4 million. However, the kingdom saw its efforts derailed by the global shutdown due to COVID-19.

Now, after the tourist reopening and numbers that begin to return to normal, Vision 2030 is back on track, and after a strategic alliance between the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage of Saudi Arabia, seeks to make this country one of the five main destinations globally.

One of the key points of this alliance is the 22nd WTTC World Summitwhich took place in Riyadh, its capital, from November 28 to December 1, 2022, under the motto “Travel for a better future”.

“In recent years, we have witnessed the transformation of the Middle East into a vibrant and global destination. This transformation in Saudi Arabia is the fruit of an investment of 800 billion dollarsthe largest in the history of travel and tourism,” he said during his presentation at the Summit Julia SimpsonPresident and CEO of the WTTC.

WTTC Summit in Riyadh: Princess Haifa Al Saud, Deputy Minister of Tourism, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; Khalid Al-Falih, Minister of Investment, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; Zurab Pololikashvili, Secretary General, UNWTO; Anthony Capuano, CEO, Marriott International; Pierfrancesco Vago, Global Chairman of CLIA and Executive Chairman of the Cruise Division, MSC Group (Martina Putruele)

It is that to achieve its mission, Saudi Arabia is transforming itself.

As the German correspondent Susanne Koelbl reflects in her book Behind the Kingdom’s Veil: Inside the New Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, “it is not an exaggeration to say that his vision, revealed in 2016, calls for a social revolution: against the conservative and anti-modern dogma of Wahhabism and in favor of moderation; against dependence on the government and in favor of self-sufficiency; against the religious police and in favor of music, movies, dance, meetings between genders and women drivers. (…) As the Saudis, and the world, watch this act of transformation on a tightrope, the question on everyone’s mind is: can the saudis make a successful transition?”.

Social transformation is, to put it bluntly, doubtful. The announcement of the visa program in 2019 occurred a week before the first anniversary of the murder of Jamal Khashoggithe Saudi journalist critical of the kingdom.

In addition, the supposed liberation of women -due to less strictness when it comes to wearing the hijab, abaya and even for driving and working- is constantly questioned when the kingdom’s treatment of activists for the rights is revealed. Women rights which has generated international condemnation.

“From the outside you see that Saudi Arabia is opening up and diversifying, but at the same time, you see the political side, which is unpredictable, repressive and disrespectful of the rule of law,” he told infobae Saudi researcher and academic Hala Aldosari. At one point, the most influential businessmen in Saudi Arabia were seized and forced to give parts and shares of their assets to the state, to the public investment fund.”

Vision 2030 is the head project of Mohammed bin Salman (REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/Pool)
Vision 2030 is the head project of Mohammed bin Salman (REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha/Pool) (ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA/)

“We also don’t have a competitive infrastructure for tourists,” adds Aldosari, who is also a member of the advisory board for the Middle East/North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. “Things like cheap or affordable hotels, which one does find in neighboring countries like Jordan or Egypt. We have fewer routes, fewer travel agencies, fewer rest areas with decent facilities, and we don’t have competitive prices. The truth is that the goals of Vision 2030 they are too ambitious in many ways.”

for the princess Haifa Al Saud, Deputy Minister of Tourism of the kingdom, the key is collaboration. “A vision, set goals,” she said during a panel at the global meeting. When it was pointed out that it is easy to talk about collaboration but difficult to have the will to put it into practice, she pointed to the opulent and packed hall of the King Abdul Aziz International Conference Center in Riyadh, where thousands of guests and journalists from more than 80 countries around the world gathered. Undoubtedly, the investment is large, but that does not necessarily imply that tourists begin to arrive in hordes to the kingdom.

“I don’t think it will work for two reasons,” he explains in dialogue with Infobae Abdullah Alaoudhthe Director of Research for Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates at DAWN, a non-profit organization founded by Jamal Khashoggi that promotes democracy, the rule of law and human rights for all the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa. “They will allow you to travel but not write anything negative about the kingdom. How could you travel freely if you cannot speak freely, think freely, meet people freely?

“And he doesn’t just want to attract a few foreigners here and there: he wants millions and millions. For this to happen, you have to have a free society. You have to have freedom to speak, to travel. And you have to have a rule of law to attract foreign investment. There is no way an investor would leave Dubai, Abu Dhabi, London, New York and come here with all these atrocities and lack of freedom.”

In a section of the official page Visit Saudi Arabiayou can download a PDF detailing the fines that a tourist must pay if you violate certain local laws or customs, either on your first or second offense. Some of those listed are “wearing inappropriate clothing in public places”; “wearing clothing in public that has profanity, obscene images or symbols on it”; or “taking pictures or videos of people, traffic accidents, crimes, or other incidents without permission.”

Saudi Arabia wants to attract 30 million foreign tourists by 2030

The truth is that the transformation of Saudi Arabia is above all physical. Because to attract tourists, you have to build attractions.

The kingdom is building several futuristic mega projects to achieve this goal: Al Ula, for example, which will be an arts center close to ancient tombs; Diriyah Gatea development northwest of Riyadh centering around the UNESCO World Heritage site of At-Turaif, which finally opens to the public on December 4, after a lavish opening that included hundreds of workers, historical re-enactments and a show of pyrotechnics and drones that lit up the Saudi sky like never before; neom, a new vision of urban life that seems straight out of a science fiction movie; the Red Sea Project, a Maldivian-style resort; Y Qiddiya, an entertainment complex being built southwest of Riyadh that they describe as “a place that allows the youth of Saudi Arabia to fulfill their ambitions.” And there is more.

Thousands of Saudis have signed up for the state’s “Tourism Pioneers” program, which seeks to train 100,000 people to work in the hospitality sector across the kingdom. Some learn at two facilities in Riyadh, while others travel abroad for short courses in countries with more advanced tourism industries. They will be the cleaners, receptionists and sales managers who will rehabilitate Saudi Arabia’s image globally.

Another of the goals of Vision 2030 is for Saudis to work in jobs normally filled by immigrants. Some 850,000 people currently work in the sector, 26% of whom are Saudis, according to official data. MBS wants that percentage to rise to 70%.

For decades and decades, Saudi Arabia was more isolated than North Korea. Now, that it seeks to diversify and not depend solely on petrodollars, its million-dollar opening strategy requires yes or yes to adapt to international standards, be it at the hospitality level, or ethical. The travelers will ultimately be the ones who decide the fate of the crown prince’s ambitious plans.

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