Travel: Saudi - Wine, women and song? No chance

Jeremy Atiyah, who has travelled widely in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, assesses the prospects for the first British package holiday- makers

SO SENSITIVE and sacred are the holy cities of Mecca and Medina (which will remain firmly off-limits to non-Muslims) that the very idea of Western tourists wandering around any part of Saudi Arabia with their cameras has been hitherto unthinkable. Apart from a few Japanese groups, who are perceived locally as "well behaved", the British tourists who yesterday began a visit as part of a trip organised by the specialist tour operator, Bales, are the very first Westerners to have been issued with Saudi tourist visas.

What kind of tourist wants to visit Saudi Arabia? Mr Wingrove of Yorkshire, who is joining the first tour, told me that it was all about the novelty of visiting an unusual, unspoilt destination without any tourists.

He is quite right. Before now, the only legitimate reasons for entering this ultra-conservative country have been religion and business. You were either a bona fide Muslim performing the annual haj (pilgrimage) to the holy cities or you were part of the mainly Asian 6,000,000-strong expatriate workforce.

Last year, however, in the face of Islamic sensitivities, Saudi authorities finally made the decision to open the door tentatively to tourism. "This is tourism on a very small scale," explains Chris Grime of Bales. "It is for well off, educated people with a genuine interest in history. The Saudi authorities want to promote tourism as a form of cultural exchange. This is not a money-making exercise: the number of visitors will be tiny beside Saudi's oil revenues. It is a PR exercise. Westerners can now go in and see for themselves that Saudi Arabia is not just about women not being allowed to drive. It is also about secure families and incredible hospitality."

"This is about showing the West what the Saudis have achieved," agrees Abdulaziz Al Toyan, a lecturer in economics from Riyadh. "A century ago we were just tribes with no civilisation. Now the government wants to show the world that we have become a real country."

But unfettered tourism in Saudi Arabia is definitely not on the agenda. Hippie backpackers will not be playing didgeridoos outside the gates of Mecca. "It goes without saying that we are a very conservative country," Al Toyan says. "We have our traditions. Just like the English."

After all, this is a country where practically the entire male population wears the national dress of white robes and red-checked head-wraps - although in the south west of the country the tribes people tend to sport their own weird and wonderful attire. Women are so heavily protected in Saudi Arabia that, in many families, brothers do not even meet their sisters- in-law.

Among the many cultural curiosities that will entertain tourists in Saudi Arabia will be the spectacle of Saudi girls in the "family section" of, say, a Pizza Hut restaurant surreptitiously holding aside their veils to insert food into their mouths. Waiters are sometimes asked by more conservative Saudis to stand with their backs to the table as they take the order. It should be added here that female tourists will not be required to cover their faces (though they will certainly need to cover their hair, arms and legs).

Given the constant bad publicity in the West surrounding the Middle East, over Iraq and most recently over the shooting dead of four tourists on an adventure holiday in the Yemen, it may seem surprising that anyone would want to visit Saudi Arabia at all. There is now at least one other operator, British Museum Tours, who are commencing tours to Saudi this year.

"Demand for our Saudi Arabian tours started off strongly when our brochure appeared last year," says Grime. "It has tailed off in the wake of events in Iraq and the Yemen. But we still see this as a growing destination. We are planning further tours for later in the year."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea