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 Mada’in 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.
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.