Letter from Saudi Arabia: Welcome for Tourists as Veil Is Lifted at Last

Article excerpt

Hotel operators are rubbing their hands with glee as conservative Saudi Arabia makes tentative steps towards opening up to tourism.

But they remain aware of the limitations they could face.

It may not be the most obvious holiday destination - alcohol is banned, unmarried men and women are segregated, women are veiled in public and not allowed to drive - but tour operators are confident that they can appeal to a specialist market which they say is just waiting to be tapped.

Earlier this year, the Saudi cabinet approved broad guidelines for issuing visas to tourists but asked for detailed regulations before allowing visitors to tour historic and tourist sites in the Gulf Arab state.

Until now, visas have not been issued to individual tourists and other foreigners receive visas through a Saudi sponsor.

One report quoted sources in the tourism sector as saying that government guidelines would require tourists to travel to the kingdom in groups through a local company that would take charge of their tours and ensure they leave after their visit.

'We are starting right now to witness an influx in group inquiries from all sorts of nationalities,' said Magdi Samman, area director of marketing Middle East and Africa for Bass Hotels and Resorts.

A Saudi newspaper recently splashed pictures of a group of 95 American tourists spending the day in Jeddah as part of a regional tour.

'I hope for increased exchange between our two countries, of students and cultural activities and group visits,' one said, while others expressed feelings of 'curiosity and anticipation' on arriving in the kingdom.

'I think Saudi Arabia will especially appeal as a destination to special-interests groups,' Samman said on the sidelines of Dubai's annual Arabian Travel Market, citing diving and historical tours as examples.

He said the Bass group have seven new hotels due to open in the kingdom, adding to the 27 properties they already have under management there.

Saudi Arabia set up a state body to promote tourism this year.

The country receives several million Muslim pilgrims a year to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina for the haj or annual pilgrimage and umra (minor pilgrimage) but they are not counted as tourists. …