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
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The Independent Culture
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."