Saudi tourism has potential but faces obstacles
By Ulf Laessing
JABAL SAWDA, Saudi Arabia (Reuters Life!) - Saudi Arabia's highest point offers stunning views and a mild climate, away from the scorching desert heat that dominates most of the Gulf Arab state -- but hardly any tourists are around to see it.
A narrow road winds its way down the 2,700-meter (8,858 ft) mountain to the scenic village of Rijal Alma which is famous for its 300-year-old tall buildings. A cable car brings visitors up to outdoor restaurants.
The major oil exporter could be a paradise for the cultural, sporty or ecologically minded tourist, with its mountains, historic sights and diving spots in the nearby Red Sea.
Up in the north, there is the ancient Nabataean town of Madain Saleh and remains of the famous Hejaz railway, linking the Levant with the holy city of Medina, which was destroyed in World War One.
King Abdullah has tried to open up the conservative Muslim kingdom, and promote tourism and foreign investment to lower reliance on oil, especially in the poorer south of the country.
But he is facing opposition from clerics who oversee vast parts of society and fear that allowing tourists to come will change the character of the Islamic kingdom, one of the most conservatives countries.
In the southern Rijal Alma village, a foreign worker sells tickets for the local museum showcasing folklore.
"I was here 15 years ago and came back to show it to my wife. I really like Rijal Alma and the region," said Khaled Ahmeri, a Saudi living in Jubail on the Gulf coast. Continued...