RIYADH // It’s the day before the grand opening of Shaden, a luxury desert camp in Saudi Arabia where air-conditioned tents look out on sandstone cliffs. A princely delegation is on its way. But the place isn’t quite ready.
Peacocks for the garden of the 10,000-riyals-a-night royal suite have not arrived. The cow brought in to provide fresh milk for the cafe has been mooing all night. “He won’t shut up,” laments Ahmed Al Said, the project developer, as he gives orders over the clang of hammers and shovels.
Saudi Arabia as a whole isn’t ready for tourists either. But its rulers are intent on revolutionising the economy, and tourism is high on their list. They figure it can create jobs for a youthful population, earn revenue to reduce oil-dependence, and help open the kingdom to the world. Which it might – if anyone can be persuaded to come.
The country attracts plenty of foreign travellers – about 18 million last year, the most in the Arab world. But they are almost all Muslim pilgrims visiting Mecca. Regular tourism barely exists.
Saudi Arabia does not even issue tourist visas. Its alcohol ban, strict dress code and curbs on gender mixing are red flags for many people who would be happy to visit Dubai’s beaches or Egypt’s pyramids.
Then there are the secret police, who often keep a close watch on foreign visitors, and the religious police, who chastise people for moral violations.
“There are aspects of Saudi that will put people off,” said Jarrod Kyte, product director at UK tour company Steppes Travel. More info