Saudi Arabia woos tourists with e-visa, visa on arrival
Citizens from 49 countries are now eligible for online e-visas or visas on arrival.
To encourage visitors, authorities announced they would allow unmarried foreign couples to rent hotel rooms together, and that foreign women were not obliged to wear the body-shrouding abaya that is still expected in public for Saudi women.
Methaab Abdallah, a Polish group’s guide, has owned a travel agency for the past decade. Abdallah welcomed the reforms but sounded a note of caution given the fledgling state of the industry in the kingdom.
“Authorities are moving much faster than we are, and with greater resources. We must adapt to this rapid change, but we can’t go that fast,” he said.
Developing the tourism industry is a key pillar of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform programme that aims to prepare the Arab world’s largest economy, which is highly reliant on oil, for a diversified future.
Glitzy promotional campaigns focus on ancient sites as well as breathtaking desert and coastal landscapes.
But authorities are also banking on large cities like the capital Riyadh and the western Red Sea port of Jeddah playing their part through large-scale investments in entertainment offerings.
Despite these efforts, the capital – home to seven million people, including two million foreigners – has a sleepy air, with little of the glamour and buzz of its counterparts elsewhere in the Gulf.
With its wide sidewalks and high-end shops, Al-Tahlia Street in central Riyadh is often compared with the Champs-Élysées. But it has little of the energy and style of its famous Paris counterpart.
On an average weeknight, just a few families or groups of friends can be found seated on the restaurant terraces. Conversations are quiet and until recent years, music was not played inside dining venues.
In the middle of the avenue, which is punctuated by construction for the city’s first metro system, a flashy facade stands out with a gigantic, luminous inscription announcing the “Soho Club”.
Electronic music booms from inside, as the doorman, sporting a blazer and an earpiece, welcome a visitor inside with a smile, but also a warning: “It’s a respectable club.”
Inside, the atmosphere is subdued, as people enjoy meals and a cozy decor that is more reminiscent of an English pub than a nightclub.
“We are in favour of tourism, but foreigners must respect our traditions and customs in the way they dress and behave,” one man firmly told an AFP reporting team, as he passed by in his traditional robe and chequered headdress.
The conservative country, which forbids alcohol and is notorious for its gender segregation, may seem an unlikely destination for global tourists.
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