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Saudis' Welcome Mat Is Out

The reclusive kingdom is intent on drawing non-Muslims to sample its wonders. It hopes to erase the stain of its post-9/11 reputation.

July 16, 2006|Lara Sukhtian | Associated Press Writer

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Saudi Arabia seems an unlikely destination for fun in the sun.

Yet here was a Saudi prince at a tourism conference in neighboring Dubai, busily trying to sell his country as a vacation spot -- provided visitors understand: women come robed, don't expect alcohol, and everyone refrains from eating in public from dawn to dusk during Ramadan.

And swinging singles need not apply. Women younger than 40 must be chaperoned.

Undaunted, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, until recently accessible to only a handful of non-Muslim tourists, is opening its doors, beckoning curious world travelers to its mysterious and hidden treasures.

The change springs from the new policies of King Abdullah, who ascended the throne in August.

Abdullah, a reformer, wants to show that his country is more than just the former home of Osama bin Laden and a breeding ground for Islamic extremism.

"He wants to show the world a different face to the kingdom. It's all part of a greater plan to open up the country, to show that though it is Arab and Islamic, it is also modern and moderate," said Mishari Thaydi, a Saudi writer and analyst for the London-based newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat.

"Tourists are the best ambassadors for any country," Thaydi said.

The king, together with the country's tourism commission, wants to wash out the stain left on the Saudi reputation by the Sept. 11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis.

At a recent tourism exhibition in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdel Aziz, secretary general of the Saudi tourism commission, announced that the kingdom was in the process of licensing 18 tour operators to issue tourist visas to non-Muslim visitors from the West and Asia.

For the last six years, since the country first cracked open the door to tourism, Saudi Arabian Airlines had been the country's only licensed operator of tours to an ultraconservative land known for being reclusive.

"It's not a problem for us to open up. We just want to make sure we are doing it right," Prince Sultan said.

Saudi officials characterize the number of nonreligious visitors so far as only "a handful," but they hope to boost that to 50,000 a year initially and to 200,000 annually by 2010.

But the opening comes with strict rules.

According to the tourism commission, only single entry visas will be issued. Coed tours will be allowed -- with the chaperon stipulation. Visitors must follow local customs, and a booklet printed in several languages will be distributed to tourists instructing them on Saudi Arabia's strict social traditions.

"The tourists must comply with the social conducts of the kingdom, to know what's allowed and what's not allowed, what to wear and what not to wear," said Saad Kadi, advisor to Prince Sultan.

All female tourists will be required to dress according to Saudi tradition: covered from head to toe with only their face, hands and feet exposed. And in the most conservative city, the capital, Riyadh, women must wear a black robe over their clothes.

If tourists choose to travel during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, they will not be allowed to eat or drink in public during fasting hours.

One thing visitors won't do, however, is tour Islam's most holy sites, including the cities Mecca and Medina. They are off limits to non-Muslims.

But there is a lot for tourists to do.

There is an ancient rosecolored Nabatean city carved in sandstone, along with hundreds of cultural and archeological sites, such as the remains of the Hejaz railway, which was begun in 1900 to allow Muslim pilgrims to travel to the Arabian Peninsula holy cities from other parts of the Ottoman Empire.

Mountains that abound in vegetation and wildlife offer a verdant contrast to the desert, a sprawling expanse where visitors can take excursions.

And there's scuba diving. With more than 1,000 miles of coast along the Red Sea and just under 500 miles of beach along the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia is home to some of the world's most spectacular dive sites.

"It is the last untouched tropical coral reef in the world, simply because of Saudi Arabian paranoia. And thank God for it," said Eric Mason, executive manager in Saudi Arabia of Dream Divers. "This place is a diver's dream come true."

Mason says the campaign to boost tourism will improve Saudi Arabia's image abroad.

"People are frightened of it. They don't understand it. Now they will come and see the truth for themselves," Mason said.

But how will women scuba dive when they are supposed to be draped in a black robe? Both Kadi and Mason said there could always be an exception to the rules, as long as it was not flaunted.

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