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
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
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
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
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
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.