Foreign tourism in the Kingdom remains a key issue

Mada’in Saleh could be a major tourist site.

While the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) is trying hard to develop tourism in the country, it remains nearly impossible for foreign travelers to obtain a tourist visa and visit the Kingdom.

“How can we get rid of the stereotypes people have about our country if outsiders cannot come to see with their own eyes how developed we are?” one Saudi, who requested to remain anonymous, wondered.

Nearly four years ago, the Louvre Museum in Paris opened the exhibition “Routes d’Arabie” or “Roads of Arabia,” with 400 objects from Saudi Arabia on display. Subsequently, the exhibition moved to Barcelona in Spain, Saint Petersburg in Russia, and Germany’s capital Berlin.

Following the European tour, the exhibition moved to the United States, where on April 25 this year, Prince Sultan Bin Salman, president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), opened the show at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City in the presence of proud Saudi students studying there under the King Abdullah Scholarship Program. Following the exhibition in Kansas City, which will run until the first week of July, Roads of Arabia is expected to move to San Francisco.

Back in 2010, the curators at the Louvre said the Roads of Arabia exhibition was an attempt to change the perceptions of Saudi Arabia. At a time when the image of Saudi Arabia does still not go beyond that of a sandy desert and an oppressed society the exhibition focuses on the diversity of the country and its rich heritage.

Thus, it is all the more striking that the country remains closed for foreign visitors who want to come to the Kingdom for reasons other than pilgrimage or business to see with their own eyes all the natural and cultural wonders this country has to offer. Over the past decade, the authorities allowed a small number of tour companies to organize group travels to the Kingdom and in late 2013, newspapers reported the government had entrusted the SCTA to start issuing tourist visas on the basis of “certain regulations” approved by the ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs.

However, in March this year SCTA President Prince Sultan announced the Kingdom was temporarily stopping the issuance of tourist visas as it was now focusing on infrastructure development and providing services to its nationals, Saudi Gazette reported.

In other words, the tourism sector within the country would be developed mainly to create jobs, keep Saudi tourists inside the country, and reduce the flow of cash being spent outside, as the prince worded it, but the Kingdom keeps its gates shut tight for foreign tourism.

But travelers from around the world who are zealous to discover this mysterious land constitute only part of the story; Saudis and expats living in the Kingdom are also eager to show their international friends how they live, what treasures their country houses, and familiarize them with their culture and religion. And, even more importantly, opening up the country would likely lead to more understanding and respect for the Saudi culture.

One expatriate from the Netherlands, who did not want her name to be mentioned, said she had been living in Saudi Arabia for over 20 years. She came to the Kingdom — first to Riyadh and then to Jeddah — following her marriage to a Saudi national and built her life here, but has so far been unable to show her friends how she lives. “I have been living the biggest part of my life in the Kingdom. It has become my home. However, I have never had the chance to show my close friends in the Netherlands what my life looks like,” she said.

Despite this woman telling her friends repeatedly that Saudi Arabia looks like any other modern country including skyscrapers, malls, large expressways, and so on, her friends and relatives continue to imagine her living in the middle of the desert, she said.

Saudi Gazette contacted the SCTA, whose general manager of the licensing and quality department, Ahmed Al-Issa, repeated the commission’s stance that its goals are to organize, market, and develop domestic tourism in Saudi Arabia.

Asked about the difficulties foreigners face when trying to obtain a tourist visa for the Kingdom, he said, “The commission is in charge of developing tourism, no matter if the beneficiary is a citizen, expatriate or anyone else interested in tourism.” He did not want to elaborate on the difficulties foreigners face when trying to obtain a tourist visa for the Kingdom. “However,” he continued, “issuing visas for tourists from other countries does not fall under the commission’s responsibilities but under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”




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