Saudis want to build tourism, but can they end alien-hostile culture?

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Ruins in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, a Unesco World Heritage Site that is known as the birthplace of Saudi Arabia.
Ruins in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, a Unesco World Heritage Site that is known as the birthplace of Saudi Arabia.

As I read the recent news that Saudi Arabia had not only opened its borders to global tourism but was promoting itself as a place of "hospitality," I felt a disconnect, recalling my first visit to the kingdom. It was the mid-1980s, and I was a college student visiting my parents at their new home in the Aramco compound in Dhahran.

It was not a welcoming experience.

I landed to find hundreds of people from three jumbo jets crowding the airport arrival hall. With the rambling lines barely moving, some fellow travelers and I spilled out a bit from single-file order as we talked and joked to pass time. Suddenly, an official stood up, pointed and yelled angrily for us to form a single line. Tired and annoyed at what seemed an unnecessary command amid a sea of disorder, I -- clearly without thinking -- rolled my eyes.

The official saw that and immediately ordered me to his podium, where he made me stand behind him until immigration officials cleared the hall more than an hour later.

As the time passed, I grew increasingly anxious, knowing that any signs of disrespect by women in this country were taken quite seriously and often dealt with harshly.

I was finally released after a stern lecture, after which I moved on to customs, where officers dug through my suitcase, smelling my liquids to make sure I wasn't smuggling in alcohol.

While the scolding might seem minor in retrospect, it speaks to one of countless ways that Western travelers, particularly women, can unwittingly get themselves in trouble traveling in one of the world's most socially conservative places. 

It also underscores the potential cultural conflicts that the country and its people will face as the kingdom, with its historical disdain for Western culture, throws open its doors for the first time to widespread global tourism.

It might seem unfair of me to paint the Saudi Arabia of today as I remember it from the 1980s. But the fact is that until last year, little had changed with respect to the nation's views on Western culture and women's and civil rights. 

Then, last year, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman finally lifted the world's only ban on female drivers. And just last month, the kingdom announced that women henceforth would have the right to obtain passports and to travel abroad without needing permission from a male relative.

Still, given its history, it came as something of a surprise late last month when Ahmed Al-Khateeb, chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, announced a new open visa program, asserting that the country's citizens "are a people of hospitality." Previously, the country restricted visas to Muslim pilgrims and business travelers and expats, though occasional visits by select tour operators had been allowed in recent years.

The move was the latest step in the crown prince's aggressive plans to diversify the Kingdom's oil-based economy. 

As Saudi Arabia moves forward with its open visa plan, it is also undertaking two massive projects to develop luxury tourism centers at the historic site of Diriyah, known as the birthplace of the Saudi state, and across a massive, untouched swath of the Red Sea.

Yet many questions remain about what tourists will and will not be able to see and to visit. Mecca, for example, will remain off-limits to everyone but Muslims. Other concerns arise from anxiety about how Western tourists will be received by a culture that has historically fought Western influences.

Strict social and religious rules -- Westerners might well call them "harsh" -- remain, although the kingdom seems intent on clarifying some of them. 

For example, along with the announcement of tourist visas, the Associated Press reported, the kingdom had also set out a formal dress code for female visitors, requiring that shoulders and knees be covered but not requiring them to wear the full-body abaya. Some media reports also indicated that the kingdom would move enforcement of dress code and other rules away from local mullahs to police.

Finally, CNN has reported that the kingdom intends to lift its ban on unmarried couples sharing a hotel room.

Still, as Westerners were reminded by last year's killing by Saudi agents of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, coupled with the reported torture of several detained women's rights activists, there are limits to Saudi reforms. Moreover, the kingdom is known for its subjective application of laws.

For example, among Aramco residents, it was well understood that if you had a car accident outside the compound, it would likely be considered your fault. After all, the attitude was if you as a Westerner had not been in the country, it never would have happened.

Public displays of affection between unmarried people could land one (or in the case of a female, her father or other male guardian) in jail. Petty crimes like theft can still be punished by having your hand chopped off, then hung on display in the town square. 

More serious crimes, including certain drug offenses, are still punishable by public execution, and the sentences can be meted out without an open trial. 

These laws and practices are long-standing and deeply rooted in a Muslim culture that doesn't easily embrace change, meaning that Saudi Arabia, at least initially, is not a suitable destination for unseasoned travelers.

At the same time, the new visa program opens opportunities for tour operators to offer guided trips with local experts who can help travelers gain a deeper understanding of the culture, customs and sites while also, presumably, helping them to avoid or diffuse culture clashes.

One tour operator that is eager to resume trips to the kingdom is Steppes Travel of the U.K., which ran a few trips as well as some FIT departures in recent years but halted them because of the difficult and unreliable Saudi visa system.

"We speak to all of our clients before they travel," said Justin Wateridge, Steppes' managing director. "We brief them on the dress code and send them some very specific information" about the ins and outs of traveling in the kingdom.

Wateridge said there exists pent-up demand for the destination among clients who have already traveled extensively throughout the Middle East and the so-called Stan countries. About 80% of Steppes' clients visiting Saudi Arabia, he said, are from the U.K., about 10% from the U.S.

With the new visa program, Wateridge said, Steppes has two trips planned in February, each taking tourists from Riyadh to Jeddah, with visits to the historical sites of Diriyah, Buraydah, Hail, Al-Ula, Madain Saleh and Tabuk

For the time being at least, small, tightly focused treks such as these might be the safest and most comfortable way for travel advisors to introduce curious clients to the kingdom.

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