Saudi Arabia to Tourists: We Are Just Not That Into You

The "Roads of Arabia" exhibit touring the U.S. may pique interest in Saudi Arabia's sites, but would-be tourists must content themselves with a virtual visit: the country offers no tourism visas

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Lynsey Addario / VII for TIME

Saudi guides walk through the old city in Al Ula, near Maidan e Saleh, the UNESCO World Heritage site, in the Madinah region of Saudi Arabia, March 2, 2013.

Draped in a long black abaya, French tourist Virginie de Tinguy gingerly picks her way up a majestic stone staircase, careful to lift the heavy folds of fabric out of the way of her feet, lest she stumble on steps made smooth by centuries of use. The perilous climb to the top of a 13th century citadel is rewarded with a breathtaking view. Below her sprawls the ancient walled city of Al Ula, a labyrinthine warren of stone houses built so closely together that the second-floor balconies practically kiss, casting the alleys below into perpetual shade. Gray-green date-palm orchards lap at the city walls; beyond them a jagged red rock massif looms, tinting the horizon a dusty rose. “This is exceptional,” de Tinguy utters in rapturous French to her husband. “I never would have guessed there were places so beautiful in Saudi Arabia.” As if on cue, the call to prayer curls through the deserted alleys, beckoning long-departed residents to the recently restored 630-year-old mosque nearby. All that’s missing from this 1,001 Nights tableau is a flying carpet or a mustachioed genie.

Not 20 minutes away by car, another extraordinary scene can be found: the carved stone tombs of the 1st century Nabataean trading center, Mada’in Saleh, now classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site — Saudi Arabia’s first. In between Al Ula and Madain Saleh lies a vast gathering of surreal rock formations, magenta and gold spires and tortured, wind-carved sandstone escarpments rising out of the dunes. It’s as if the Parthenon, the Grand Canyon and Colorado’s Garden of the Gods were all crammed together in an area not much larger than Manhattan. If it were anywhere else in the world, the sites would be crammed with camera-toting tourists. Instead, de Tinguy and her husband have the entire place to themselves, alone with their voluble and informed Saudi guide, who is in the process of explaining the mechanics of a primitive sundial that alerted local farmers when it was time to plant crops. “I could just spend days exploring this place,” says de Tinguy. “I would tell all my friends back home to visit.”

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De Tinguy’s friends, however, would likely have a hard time getting here even if they listened to her advice. Saudi Arabia opens its doors to some 5 million religious pilgrims a year, but it displays a polite yet firm “do not disturb” sign to any would-be foreign tourists. Those who want to visit the country’s wealth of potential tourist sites, from the turquoise waters of the Red Sea coast, to desert oases, mountain fortresses and ancient souks dating back to the days of Abraham and later, the Prophet Muhammad, must do so in the course of a business trip or while visiting a family member, which is how the de Tinguys were able to come.

There are no tourism visas for Saudi Arabia, a fact made all the more frustrating for would-be visitors enchanted by the tantalizing glimpses of the country’s fantastical archaeological record found in the Roads of Arabia exhibit currently traveling between a series of U.S. and European museums. “We have so much to show the world,” laments the de Tinguys’ guide, Abdulaziz. “From the outside, I think, Saudi Arabia doesn’t look like such a nice place. But once you are here, you fall in love. If more people could visit, they would better understand our country and our traditions.”

Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, a former astronaut and president of the Saudi tourism commission, couldn’t agree more. Still, he cautions, the kingdom is not yet prepared for an onslaught of tourists, no matter how much opening the country’s doors to the nonpilgrim visitors might help increase understanding of a country that has often been portrayed in the West as a bastion of religious extremism. “When you want to invite people to your house, you want a house that is ready to receive them,” he tells TIME in an interview at Riyadh’s National Museum, a hulking edifice packed full of archaeological wonders spanning millennia — and about as empty as the heritage city in Al Ula.

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Things move slowly in Saudi Arabia. Prince Sultan launched the tourism commission in 2000. Nine years later he announced that Saudi Arabia would be issuing tourist visas in “the near future.” But, with $288 billion in oil revenues last year, it’s not like Saudi Arabia is desperate for foreign currency. There is much to take into consideration before the country opens its doors: What would the kingdom’s reactive religious conservatives say about an influx of infidels? Would Western women consent to wearing the floor-length black abaya and headscarf that is required of Saudi women? Would those women demand to drive their own rented cars — something Saudi women are not allowed to do? And how could the authorities protect tourists in a country still threatened by domestic terrorism? After all, a militant suspected of having ties to al-Qaeda assassinated four French visitors not far from Mada’in Saleh in 2007. Fears of cultural and political contagion, too, are rife: Western notions of individual freedoms could be intensely destabilizing for a country that has so far weathered the storms of the Arab Spring. While change is happening at an unprecedented rate inside the kingdom — just last month, women started serving on the closest thing the country has to a parliament — a flood of insensitive outsiders could force too much too quickly, provoking a vehement backlash from the country’s conservative core. It’s easier, and less risky, not to let anyone in at all.

Saudi Arabia may be shutting the door to foreign tourists, but it is still spending hundreds of millions of dollars to burnish the country’s cultural gems, in preparation for a different kind of visitor: Saudis themselves. Just outside of Riyadh, an army of workmen are putting the finishing touches on an ambitious restoration of Saudi Arabia’s first capital, the vast mud-brick city of Addiriyah, founded in 1740 by the first King Saud and the religious reformer Imam Mohammad Abdulwahab, father of the strictly back-to-basics Wahhabi Islam that dominates Saudi theology. Once completed, the site will house five museums, a heritage hotel, a handicraft market and a sound-and-light show. Elsewhere in the country, 25 archaeological teams are unearthing clues to Saudi Arabia’s pre-Islamic past, an undertaking once frowned upon by clerics who saw no need to study the dark days before the arrival of Islam. Prince Sultan has launched a heritage-hotel company in a joint venture with a local hospitality consortium, as well as a loan program for farmers to convert their holdings into rural inns. “Saudi Arabia is literally at the crossroads of the world’s great civilizations,” says Sultan. But it is the country’s vast wealth and oil wells, not its cultural heritage, that dominate the popular imagination. Sultan wants to change that. “Saudis are just starting to realize that with these heritage buildings and traditional villages they are sitting on a different kind of oil well.”

His target audience is the estimated 6 million to 7 million Saudis who leave the kingdom every year to vacation abroad. Sultan is gambling that if the government spends big to jazz up local attractions, more of those vacationing Saudis will stay home for the holidays. “To me, the most important foreign tourist is the Saudi tourist that is going to foreign countries,” he says. Not only will an increase in domestic tourism help diversify an economy deeply skewed in favor of oil, it will help create service-sector jobs for a swelling youth population that can no longer count on lifetime employment in a government ministry. And, Sultan hopes, it will help Saudis to fall in love anew with their homeland. “This initiative will reignite the interest of our young people,” he says. “Our country will only go forward if our people understand their roots and the traditions that keep them together.” That may be the case, but it will be a while yet before young Saudis choose Mada’in Saleh over St. Moritz for their winter holidays: Al Ula tour guide Abdulaziz says he gets on average four to five groups a week in the winter months, and none of them are Saudi, just resident expatriates looking to explore a little. Saudi Arabia may not be ready for foreign tourists, but Saudi tourists, it seems, aren’t quite ready for Saudi Arabia.

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211 comments
FredDerf
FredDerf

looked up this topic because of a sound bite on C-SPAN by some muslim bemoaning that despite globalization he still has trouble getting through Ben Gurian aiport in Israel. One obvious comment would be - gee, suspect some Israeli or American would have a bit of a problem "getting throught" a Saudi airport too, seeing how the country is closed for all but invited business or government vistors. A Second, too bad US airports weren't so difficult to get through in mid-September 2001 for Arabs...Yeah, you'd have to pay me a lot of money to go to Saudi Arabia on business. For vacation, no way - can't conceive of anything in that sorry state worth seeing. As for the last comment about how the U.S. is a "bully," sorry you feel that way - perhaps you would be happier living somewhere else? As this is a democracy, you have to be somewhat concerned that the majority of your fellow Americans do not consider that the U.S. is bullying anyone by trying to enlighten them and free them from the tyrany of a priviliged ruling class. Granted some people do not appear ready to rule themselves and others appear unwilling to relinquish power, but we've seen the alternatives and are still hopeful that we can drag them out of the dark ages and make them responsible for their own actions and tha actions of their governments.

dragomusivini
dragomusivini

I am a 4th generation American who also wants to visit Saudi Arabia.The issues I have are this.One,American government cannot act like the world bully going into every country and trying to sodomize it and impregnate it with democracy,it just won't work.Also,regardless of people's opinions the Saudi way of life has allowed them to survive this way for thousands of years.Who are we to be so arrogant as to determine what is right here.

Yossarian
Yossarian

I went there on business way back in '90.  Up to that point I had always taken for granted that any place, in it's natural state, possesses some element of beauty - then I visited the Arabian Desert.  Not so much.  Don't have a copy of my visa, visited with the Marines to help them out with their little Iraq problem.  They didn't seem particularly appreciative at the time, which was fine by me, I personally didn't consider them worth the effort...  Still don't...

FaizalAzlan
FaizalAzlan

I have been there once, to all the holy sites, Although I love the places and its religious significance, I find myself very much apart to their way of Islam. As a people Saudis, some are really really ridiculously nice people, and you also have the other extreme too.

Lordinfo
Lordinfo

i cannot believe this , i was even startled at your other article regarding how the youth are not allowed in the malls ????!!!!! 

Jawad
Jawad

It is sad to see that even in such an interconnected world most people prefer to remain ignorant and rant about stuff they know nothing about rather than do a little research.

The delusions about women rights here in KSA is downright hilarious, our women here are not constricted or forced in any way. If you would bother to talk to a women directly instead of relying on ""anonymous" sources that you read about somewhere you would understand that they do it willingly. Is it against human rights if a girl doesn't want boys to be gawking at her? Just because she doesn't flaunt her body it becomes a sort of slavery?

It is analogous to the example: when you pick the groceries of the elderly because you respect them and don't want them to strain themselves, the same way women are revered here. Its respect, not slavery, understand the difference.

And as for women having no power, about 44% of the Council of Ministers here consists of women. 

philipawilliams2010
philipawilliams2010

Darn,  Saudi Arabia was high on my list of countries to see before I die....NOT! Although they do have the real Mount Sinai surrounded by a fence of course so noone can go up to see the top of the mountain which is black due to the power of the burning bush. There are other tale tell signs as well, such as the 12 pillars of the 12 tribes of Israel and the huge Altar Moses built. It is a shame...

Payingattention
Payingattention

Back in the 90's I went to Saudi Arabia on a business trip.  I still have the invitation letter signed by some high official that was required before I could enter the country.  Your American passport will not get you in.  My short experience there was like visiting another planet.  There were a myriad of princes wandering around with their blazingly white outfits with the red checked head dress.  A mustache appeared to be part of the required accoutrements  to be properly dressed.  Any real work is done by guest labor.  A gentleman from India was assigned to be my driver.

Girls don't go under the veil until they are around 12 or 13.  My contact's wife was completely covered, even her eyes.  The daughter was very pretty but soon to be required to don the veil.  

It is considered a cold day in Saudi if the wind happens to be blowing.  To me, even with the wind, it was hot as blazes.

I did love the tea that appeared to be always available.

But even if they relaxed the entry requirements I'd still have no desire to go back.  The "haves" possess a very superior attitude and the "have nots" are much too obsequious.

MikeLand
MikeLand

Hmm, let me think about this.  Saudi Arabia hates the US enough to send some of its treasured citizens to fly airplanes into buildings in NYC and D.C.  Well I may have just felled off a olive pit truck, but I'm sure not liking me some camel jockey much today.

JenClark
JenClark

In their little "culture" that practically worships treating women like slaves and cattle, yeah sorry I'm in no hurry to visit saudi arabia, or any part of the middle east for that matter. They can keep their Abaya and their severe religious patriarchy to themselves.

SadiqShirazie
SadiqShirazie

Totally respecting the Saudi vision of preserving their cultural image which is a part and parcel of the 'Saudi Tribal and Faith Code'. ?..........I am reminded of Paula Coelho's quote :

"We .can never judge the lives of others, because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation. It's one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it's another to think that yours is the only path."

BrendanKeeley
BrendanKeeley

I would love to visit Al-Masjid an-Nabawi in Madinah.  But the Qur'an forbids it.  Even if they do open other places in the Kingdom to tourists, there will always be those areas where non-Muslims are not welcome.

tonyxyz111
tonyxyz111

@SaveRome Well very sad but the leaders think they can insulate themselves from realiy which is an delusion they have!

SandyReis
SandyReis

I would rather go to Brazil or another country that NEEDS the tourism income. Saudis and other arabs are so rich, they dont even work. 

MaramOberlin
MaramOberlin

@TIME @TIMEWorld Saudi gets over 60 MILLION visitors each year. Encouraging additional tourism has got to be the LAST thing on their mind!

Haifa_Alhababi
Haifa_Alhababi

@SaeedellQahtani للاسف اغلب كلامها صحيح ولكن تعميمها لم يعجبني ، وشكراً للمشاركة

TheSanityInspector
TheSanityInspector

As recently as the 1990s the Saudis were doing things such as knocking down medieval Ottoman castles, to make way for hotels.  I certainly hope they've got more respect for their archaeological sites than that, nowadays.  But so long as Jews are forbidden from setting foot on that so-called holy peninsula, I'll be sure to stay away also.

alkhalifi88
alkhalifi88

@HessahP @TIMEWorld ماهو شئ جديد بالنسبة للسياحة الداخلية ...طالما نرضى بالقليل لن تتغير السياحة

visitancients
visitancients

Via %s: Great %s and %s but limited access %sLbJ

almokhim
almokhim

@AMR_H5 وقد يرافقني في زيارتها مرة اخرى.. اذا ودك تخاوينا :) في بدايات ابريل :-)

almokhim
almokhim

@AMR_H5 قرأت المقال قبل يومين وللتو تناولت العشاء مع صديق فرنسي زار مدائن صالح والعلا ويكلمني عن دهشته العظيمه. واخبرته عن نيتي لزيارتها

Allyj
Allyj

We lived as expats in Riyadh for almost 7 years. We loved the desert and all of the rich cultural heritage that the Kingdom had to offer . Our children received a great education and we were welcomed as friends by strangers who became friends. We have no regrets about our time there, and would return again if possible. We are back living in Canada and as long as you make yourself aware of the 'rules' of the Kingdom - you will have a wonderful time enjoying the friendliness, warmth and hospitality of the Arab people.

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

@SadiqShirazie Yeah sorry but, moral relativism is a piss poor reason to sign off on the idea that its ok for a culture to reduce half its population to the personal property of the other half.

Crap like this has been used to justify just about ever act of inhumane behavior, moral foulness and cultural violence that has happened in the last 30 years.

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

@tonyxyz111 @SaveRome Its not exactly a delusion when they have been successfully running their kingdom like this for several hundred years.

fosnfosn
fosnfosn

@SandyReis 

I am sure Saudi Arabia or other Arab countries would not want to welcome a bigot like you.

AMR_H5
AMR_H5

@almokhim أذهلتني الصور التي شاهدتها عن هذه الآثار الغامضة وأفكر جدياً بزيارتها ، اذا سمح لي الوقت سيسعدني جداً مرافقتكم

tanlee
tanlee

I totally agree with this.  Arabs are very hospitable.

tonyxyz111
tonyxyz111

@SaveRome Also, girls should have same rights as boys in education, life, culture etc and they don't there, so I wouldnt go there!

tonyxyz111
tonyxyz111

@SaveRome When the Saudi's have churches, temples, synagogues etc, then one can say they have learned religious toleration.

tonyxyz111
tonyxyz111

@SaveRome Darius, so sad that one cannot see the beauty in the world of heritage, and instead focus on religious tyranny like the Saudi's.

SandyReis
SandyReis

@tanlee Muslims are not very hospitable abroad however. Sweden is now rape capital of Europe due to islamic immigration. 

RJMom
RJMom

@SaveRome @tonyxyz111  How is women wanting to be more than objects 'complex'?

tonyxyz111
tonyxyz111

@SaveRome Clementia should be the rule in life for humanity and preserving the past paramount for the future of humanity and the world.

tonyxyz111
tonyxyz111

@SaveRome Yes, I feel Julius Caesar would be very sad at the world today and say,"You have technology yet havent really become more humane!"

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

@SandyReis @tanlee  I know its liek that one time when Christian immigrants all piled into Bali and made it the rape capital of,   oh wait that never happened..