The world’s newest travel destination is also its most controversial


The world will soon have a new travel destination.

It’s a warm place, this destination, where the sun is always shining. It has beaches. It has sea. It will soon have multi-million-dollar beach resorts on secluded coastlines and islands.

This place has a history that stretches back almost to the beginning of human civilisation. It has ruins from the Nabatean civilisation, the creators of famed Petra in Jordan. It has modern-day religious monuments of scale and importance the likes of which you’ve never before seen.

It has big cities and modern facilities; small villages in scenic places. It has a tasty, unique cuisine. And it has a local populace who are surely keen for some of their first interactions with the outside world. Pretty exciting, right?

Unfortunately though, this new destination also has a few downsides. It’s ruled, for starters, by an iron-fisted regime that openly discriminates against women and enacts swift and violent punishment on any person who disagrees with its rules.

It still practises regular corporal punishment – public floggings and amputations for crimes that include “insulting Islam”. Human rights defenders here are routinely jailed. Activists have been executed. Women have only very recently been granted the basic freedom of driving a car.

The country is also currently engaged in a proxy war that is in violation of international law. Oh, and those huge religious monuments? As impressive as they are, you won’t be able to visit unless you’re Muslim.

Yes, the world’s newest potential tourist destination is Saudi Arabia, which recently took another large step towards finalising it plans to open up tourist visas to the non-Muslim world. With state approval of that plan expected in a matter of weeks, the country will officially open its doors to the wider travelling world.

The question is though: would you actually want to go there? Would you forsake leisure time in another country – say, in Oman, or Jordan or Iran, or for that matter in Italy or Brazil or the USA – for the chance to check it out?

That’s something we’ll all have to ponder soon, and I’m guessing that for the vast majority of travellers, the answer will be no.

After all, we know so little about this country, more by its own design than our ignorance. Saudi Arabia has long been a closed book, a nation that operates under its own rules, largely behind closed doors. We see the images of millions gathered in Mecca for the Hajj. We see American presidents glad-handing royalty to sell weapons. But that’s about it.

Saudi Arabia has a tourism website, but it’s mostly just pictures of men doing things near monuments. And now we’re expected to fly in for a relaxing mini-break?

I’ve heard from those who have already visited Saudi Arabia that its potential for tourism is currently pretty limited. Several people I’ve been in contact with who’ve spent time in the country on business haven’t exactly raved about it. There are impressive, air-conditioned shopping malls in Riyadh, they’ve said. And a few souks worth checking out. But little more.

Still, adventurous travellers would surely be excited by the possibility of breaching a new frontier, of seeing a part of the world that until now has been mostly off-limits. And no one goes to a country to visit a regime anyway – they go to visit a people, and a place. And there must be interest in seeing Saudi Arabia, and meeting Saudi Arabians, for yourself.

For many people, however, the question of going to Saudi won’t so much be one of attractions, but of logistics, and ethics. Though women, for example, are set to be granted visas without a male chaperone, it’s unclear what sort of freedom of movement they’ll be allowed once they’re in the country. It’s also uncomfortable for many travellers to tacitly approve of the Saudi regime by spending their tourist dollars in its country.

I would go to Saudi Arabia. To begin with, I’ve never been a fan of travel boycotts, as I think they punish the wrong people. Surely foreign tourists mixing with local Saudis, and vice versa, is a good thing for the world? Surely that cultural interaction will increase our understanding of them, and their understanding of us?

I’m also intrigued by the idea of exploring the unexplored, even if I can’t go to Mecca. I’d like to see this place with my own eyes. In the Middle East there’s usually more to the story, and that’s something I’d be interested in exploring. I can completely understand why others wouldn’t go – but I would.

Of course, I may never get that chance. My job in the media might mean I’m never granted one of those new visas. The sentiments expressed in this column might mean I’m never allowed access. And I’m not exactly desperate to go to Saudi – it won’t bother me particularly if the stars never align.

As, I’m sure, it won’t for many travellers. The world might have a brand-new tourist destination, but I’m not convinced anyone will want to visit.

Are you interested in visiting Saudi Arabia? Will you be applying for one of the new tourist visas? Why? Or why not?

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Instagram: Instagram.com/bengroundwater

​See also: Most conservative country on earth prepares for visitors

See also: Don’t go there – five places I will never visit





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