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Saudi Arabia To Start Offering Tourist Visas, Opening Up Traditionally Restrictive Country


One of the most restrictive countries in the world seems to be opening up. Saudi Arabia has always let in Muslims headed to Mecca on a religious pilgrimage. Now the government says it's going to issue tourist visas as well. NPR's Jackie Northam has been traveling around Saudi Arabia on a journalist visa, we should mention. She joins us now from the eastern oil city of al-Khobar. Jackie, hey there.


KELLY: So to be clear about this, it wasn't possible just to pick up and go and get a tourist visa to Saudi Arabia until now. What is this new tourist policy?

NORTHAM: Well, this is all brand new, as you say. And these sorts of details haven't quite been worked out yet or not made public, certainly. It's unclear when the first visa will actually be issued. From what we understand, it doesn't sound like the Saudis are just going to throw open the doors to anyone. There's talk about doing this on a very selected basis. I think any executive or journalist or even a Saudi returning home to see family knows that applying for a visa for the kingdom can be a long and sometimes frustrating business. And we've heard at the beginning it will likely be just tour groups that are allowed in. The one thing that is certain, though, is that any woman under the age of 25 years old cannot come to Saudi Arabia on her own. She's going to need a male chaperone.

KELLY: So some things that sound very much like the old Saudi Arabia - we should mention that this is happening against the backdrop of a lot of change in Saudi Arabia like women there are being allowed to drive. Is this part of a grander initiative?

NORTHAM: Yes, it is actually. It's part of this effort to diversify the economy and create jobs for young people here in the kingdom and to bring in foreign investment to help develop a tourism industry and especially along the coast of the Red Sea and the Gulf Peninsula, much of which is virtually untouched right now. Most of the Muslim world can come here on religious pilgrimages already, so the Saudis are probably looking towards people from the non-Muslim world. I spoke with Mohammed al-Tuwaijri, the minister of economy and planning, and he told me that the Saudis know their job now is to make the kingdom more welcoming for foreigners.

MOHAMMED AL-TUWAIJRI: This is ease of access, quality of service. This is having an atmosphere of hospitality that is so attractive to foreign tourists to come here. That's the challenge.

NORTHAM: The minister says the kingdom may have to change some things in order to attract tourists. Alcohol is banned here. Many tour - restaurants are still segregated between men and women. And, you know, this is just a very insular society.

KELLY: You know, it's interesting, Jackie, hearing you say alcohol is banned. Restaurants are segregated. Young women need a chaperone. Is there a recognition in Saudi Arabia that this may be a hard sell for for Western tourists?

NORTHAM: Oh, sure. The Saudis actually know that they have some work to do this way. And there is talk about creating semiautonomous zones where, you know, tourists can get a drink and women can wear bikinis. It's out there. They're talking about it.

KELLY: Well, say I am tempted and I want to apply for a tourist visa, what would I see? What could I come see in Saudi Arabia?

NORTHAM: There's a lot to see here. I was on a train today crossing the desert from Riyadh to Dammam, and it was fabulous. You could see camels out in the desert and Bedouin huts. You're talking to Saudis on the train. There are some impressive archaeological and historical sites here. There's mountains bordering Yemen and some great cities as well. And there's just the lure of coming to an area that's so closed off and exotic, and that may appeal to many tourists. And for the Saudis themselves, there's an interest in this to try to develop other industries besides oil. And so there's an incentive to develop new attractions.

KELLY: NPR's Jackie Northam reporting from Saudi Arabia, thanks so much.

NORTHAM: Thanks, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, politics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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