Saudi opening: How tourism is breaking down social barriers

Why We Wrote This

Travel opens doors that swing in two directions. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the initiative to bring foreign tourists to previously inaccessible sites is creating groundbreaking opportunities for those who live there.

Taylor Luck
Tour guide Minza Al-Rmothi leads a group of tourists at the diwan, a Nabataean-carved meeting place, in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, Feb. 29, 2020.

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“Saudi Arabia” and “vacation” are not words that often go together for Westerners. But the conservative kingdom has spent the past three years preparing its archaeological and natural sites for tourists as part of its bid to wean the country’s economy off of oil.  

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hopes to raise tourism’s share of GDP and create up to 500,000 jobs for Saudis in the industry. But as the once-closed country launches itself as a destination, perhaps the most remarkable sights to be seen are the changes being made to society.

The epicenter of this shift to tourism is in Al Ula, a small, arid, date palm-producing oasis town in the middle of a rugged desert in western Saudi Arabia. The area is home to rock-carved tombs and dwellings made by Nabateans 2,000 years ago. The UNESCO World Heritage site was once a trade center on the spice route.

A year ago, Minza Al-Rmothi had never held a job or even spoken to a man outside her family. “I used to ask my father, ‘Who built these houses, who carved these rocks?’ and he didn’t have a real answer,” she says. “Now I am the one with the answers.”

Standing erect and proud, Minza Al-Rmothi addresses the Western tourists clustered around her.

“Okay, everyone, any guesses what this is?” she asks, waving eagerly to the perfectly carved rectangular cave behind her. “This was a diwan, a gathering place to hear poetry, speeches, and music. Think of it like a small theater.” She laughs. “Or a home entertainment system.”

The 27-year-old tour guide’s smile is hidden behind a full-face veil. But her transformation is revealing.

One year ago, Ms. Al-Rmothi had never held a job or even spoken to a man outside her family.

“I used to ask my father, ‘Who built these houses? Who carved these rocks?’ and he didn’t have a real answer,” says Ms. Al-Rmothi. “Now I am the one with the answers.”

As the once-closed Kingdom of Saudi Arabia attempts to launch itself as a tourist destination, perhaps the most remarkable sights to be seen are the changes being made to society.

“Saudi Arabia” and “vacation” are not words that often go together for Westerners, but the kingdom has spent the past three years preparing its historical, archaeological, natural, and coastal sites for tourists in a bid to wean the country’s economy off of oil.  

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s vision is to increase tourism’s current share of gross domestic product from 2% to 10% by 2030 and create from 400,000 to 500,000 jobs for Saudis in the industry.

World Heritage site

The epicenter of this shift to tourism is here in Al Ula, a small, arid, date palm-producing oasis town in the middle of a rugged rock desert in western Saudi Arabia.

The area is home to Madain Saleh – with its rock-carved tombs and dwellings made by the Nabateans of Petra fame 2,000 years ago – once a trade center on the spice route. Today, it stands as Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage site.

Madain Saleh was something of a legend among travelers in the region. There were no guidebooks, brochures, or tours. The only way to get here was to obtain a highly prized work or pilgrimage visa, hire a driver, and know someone-who-knew-someone to arrange you a host in the town to show you the sites.

Now, it has all changed.

To jumpstart tourism, the palace formed a Royal Commission for Al Ula with a vast budget and special laws to stimulate decades of tourism development in a few short years.

The last two years have seen a brand-new airport, national parks and reserves, and new palm-lined luxury resorts nestled in the mountains.

Taylor Luck
Young men from Al Ula greet tourists on horseback in traditional garb at the site of the 'Elephant Rock' in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia on February 29, 2020.

The commission launched the Tantora Winter Festival, guiding international tourists and Saudi citizens to Al Ula through carefully organized tours on the sidelines of international concerts every weekend from January through March.

The greatest task was training a new generation of Saudis for careers in tourism and hospitality, overcoming centuries of conservative social norms. The commission has trained 460 local residents as tour guides, 2,270 as park rangers, 24 as chefs, and 10 as hospitality workers.

For women, an opening

Wajdan Saud, 26, says that before tourism, options were few in the conservative town of Bedouins and farmers.

“There were only three options for women in Al Ula,” she says. “You either become a teacher, a doctor, or you stay at home.”

Ms. Saud says she jumped at the chance to become a park ranger, having played hide-and-seek in the craggy rock-hewn valleys and tombs as a child.

“I always wanted to share this with the world,” Ms. Saud says, holding up a mobile app depicting outlines of Nabateans on the very rocks in front of her.

“My family at first thought I was crazy” she says. “Now I am the rock star of the family.”

Ms. Al-Rmothi faced a steeper climb.

Her family objected to her aspirations to become a guide, which would regularly place her in the company of unmarried male strangers. They were horrified when they learned the training would take her abroad; Saudi women were unable to travel abroad without a male guardian or approval until mid-2019.

Yet amid a worsening economic landscape they relented, and last fall Ms. Al-Rmothi trained in Paris; Sedona, Arizona; and Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

“Before, I could not look a strange man in the eye, I could not speak in their presence!” Ms. Al-Rmothi exclaims in exuberant disbelief, her arms waving in exclamation. “My voice would go silent.”

“Now I can address anyone in the world. I don’t have fear. I have pride.”

Business opportunities

Aiding this social shift is the fact that tourism is coming at a time of massive economic changes in the kingdom that have shaken every Saudi household to its core.

Government hiring has all but frozen; subsidies, perks, and handouts to Saudi families have dried up. New taxes are being imposed. Rather than a government job and cradle-to-the-grave welfare, Saudis are suddenly expected to forge a career in the private sector.

Now no job can be written off as “socially unacceptable.”

For years, Fahd Al Bedeer and his friend Abu Khaled have hosted international travelers in their homes and acted as personal tour guides; not for money, but as a personal duty and as dictated by Bedouin custom.

They are among many who are now looking to transform their down-home hospitality into a business.

Taylor Luck
A Saudi folk troupe preforms a traditional song for visitors at Al Ula heritage village in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, on February 29, 2020.

In December, Mr. Al Bedeer, a primary school Islamic studies teacher, converted his 2.5-acre family farm and retreat into an Airbnb rental, one of the first in Al Ula.

Rather than offering an ultra-modern Western apartment, Mr. Al Bedeer decided to keep the farm house as a self-styled majlis, or rest house, common across Saudi Arabia. It has two long, cushion-filled rooms and a fireplace, a detached bathroom and kitchen outside, all positioned perfectly to look out at the farm, cliffs, and desert beyond.

“I figure that tourists traveling all the way to Saudi Arabia will want to experience something different; to live our life and relax the way we relax,” Mr. Al Bedeer says as he strolls among date palms and orange trees. “A barbecue among the palm trees surrounded by nature.”

Many here hope that international tourism can transform the town, he says.   

“Rather than us traveling abroad, this is a chance to bring people from different countries here to Saudi Arabia to break down barriers.”

Cursed grounds and coronavirus

But social customs and norms are not the only obstacles Saudi Arabia has had to clear in order bring tourism to life.

As recently as 2016, the kingdom itself discouraged the promotion of pre-Islamic archeological sites even at home, for fears of encouraging “idol worship.”

The site of Madain Saleh itself is believed by many Saudis to be Thamud, a people and town cited in the Quran that, like Sodom and Gomorrah, was destroyed by God for their decadence, idol worship, and defiance.

For many Saudis outside Al Ula, these were – and continue to be – cursed grounds.

“There is a saying by the prophet Mohammad, don’t stop by these grounds – flee from them,” says Abdullah, a Riyadh businessman. “They shouldn’t promote this site, and certainly shouldn’t be holding concerts there.”

To be sure, the full rollout of Saudi tourism – planned for October 2020 – is being delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, which led the Saudis to suspend the entry of tourists in March. But the country is using the time to build up its tourism talent and infrastructure. Last week, officials authorized the development of southern Al Ula for hotels and tourism businesses.

And the launch of the winter festival and carefully orchestrated social media campaigns by international “influencers” invited by the government has sparked interest among Saudis.

Mohammed Abdullah, 22, a recent engineering graduate, decided to visit the site for the first time with his two childhood friends.

“We had never even heard of Al Ula or knew that Madain Saleh was here and could be visited,” he says as he uploads a photo of rock paintings to his Instagram.

“My friends everywhere are asking me: Where is this amazing place? I am telling them, it’s here in Saudi.”

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