Saudi Arabia opens its doors to pilgrim tourists

Wed Oct 6, 2010 10:03am EDT
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By Asma Alsharif

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - Sunshine all year round, a medley of multicolored coral reefs beyond its sandy shores and the remains of an ancient desert city make an enticing tourist destination. But don't pull out your bikini yet.

In Saudi Arabia there are no shorts, no mixing of unrelated men and women, and most significantly, no easy access into the country.

Home to Islam's holiest cities of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia regards itself as the guardian of Islam and is often closed off to foreigners. Even though it receives more than five million Muslim pilgrims a year, they are not allowed to travel within the country.

Tourist visas are rarely issued and come with many restrictions but this is due to change as Saudi Arabia adopts a new strategy to tap into a niche market of conservative tourism.

"It is about the kind of people that come to Saudi Arabia. It is an Islamic country that is home to Islam's holiest sites so most people who come here come for Umra and Haj (pilgrimage)," said Abdulla al-Jehani, an official at the Saudi Commission for tourism and Antiquities.

For the past six years the tourism authorities focused their efforts on attracting more locals and Gulf nationals, who are allowed entry to Saudi Arabia without a visa.

"We are working on a new program... called "Umra Plus," which means "Umra Plus tourism,"" Jehani said, adding that visiting pilgrims will be allowed to extend their stay in the kingdom to visit certain areas that were previously inaccessible to them.

With sites such as the ancient Nabatean city in Madaen Saleh; a 300-year old village of Rijal Alma; and the remains of a famous railway linking the Levant with the holy city of Medina, Saudi Arabia has a lot to offer.   Continued...