Most of us remember Aladdin and Genie, the famous Disney characters that remind us the stories of adventures in the desert. With tourism on the rise in Saudi Arabia, people visiting the golden sand deserts of Saudi Arabia can have similar excitement. Though it may not be the most favorite Arab state for tourism yet, with cities such as Dubai and Abu Dhabi boasting more tourists, the recent influx of tourists into this oil country is brining enough attention.
Deserts, unexplored locations and Islamic archaeological sites – all of these ?await? eager visitors to Saudi Arabia. Traditionally, the Saudi kingdom didn?t issue tourist visas and it was difficult for internationals to visit Saudi in the past. But the royal government has been changing rules recently making it easier for tourists.
Though the country is the largest producer of crude oil and has significant amount of oil exports, the Saudi monarchy has kept the country largely isolated from the external influence with a stricter version of Islamic code in the government and administration, which deterred tourists in the past. But over the past two years, the drop in crude prices is forcing the Saudi kingdom to open the economy and bring tourists, which would ramp up the tourism industry and bring revenues to the government. The country is known for its crude oil and dates until now, but it is getting ready for the tourists and explorers in the coming years. The head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, Prince Sultan Bin Salman, had said that he is pushing to make it easier for both Muslim and non-Muslim tourists to visit the secluded Gulf state. They are also working on promotional programs to show foreigners what Saudi is about.
The most frequent visitors to Saudi are Muslim pilgrims who travel across the globe to reach Saudi Arabia, where they get to see the birth place of Islam and visit the holy places, Mecca and Medina. A tourism program launched in April by the Tourism Commission encourages pilgrims to convert their visas into tourist visas and visit other places in Saudi such as Jeddah. Such visits were not previously encouraged due to security reasons and illegal immigration. Citizens of neighboring Arab Gulf states can travel to Saudi Arabia without a visa under the terms of an agreement among these states. The Saudi Commission has submitted a proposal to start issuing visas to the non-Muslim with a format of allowing tourists in tour groups. However, Mecca and Medina will continue to be restricted to non-Muslims, and it should also be noted that Israeli citizens are banned from entering the country.
While the tourism is on the rise in Saudi Arabia, the royal government is also attracting private investors to develop the infrastructure that is needed to support the inflow of visitors. Initiatives are also underway to promote neglected heritage sites and build new museums. While all these initiatives are meant to offset the slide in crude prices and diversify sources of foreign exchange, they would also create jobs and lower the unemployment rate in the country.