'White oil': Saudi Arabia seeks place on tourism map

Gulf state promoting tourism in post-oil era

Gazing at a shimmering salt pan below, a group of first-time Saudi hikers descend craggy slopes into a volcanic crater, part of a hidden trove of natural wonders being promoted to kickstart tourism.

Saudi Arabia will soon begin issuing tourist visas, opening up one of the last frontiers of global tourism - a sector touted as the desert kingdom's "white oil" - as it steps up diversification efforts to wean itself off its crude oil dependence.

But the conservative country, known for its sex segregation and austere dress code, is seen as an unlikely destination for global tourists aside from Muslim pilgrims visiting holy sites in Mecca and Medina.

Now, amid historic social change, the kingdom is seeking a place on the global tourism map by promoting sites like the Al Wahbah crater, unheard of even within Saudi Arabia with the near absence of local tourism.

On a warm winter weekend, private tour operator Amr Khalifa, took a group of first-time Saudi campers to hike to the bottom of the little-known crater.

In recent months, the authorities have built roads and markers to the site and put up picnic shelters around the rim of the crater.

"The key challenge is to make such tourism sites accessible," said Mr Khalifa.

Tourism is one of the centrepieces of Vision 2030, the blueprint to prepare the biggest Arab economy for the post-oil era, conceived by powerful Crown Prince Mohammed Salman.

In August, the kingdom announced a multi-million dollar project to turn 50 islands and other pristine sites on the Red Sea into luxury resorts.

It also plans to develop historic sites such as the centuries-old Mada'in Saleh, home to sandstone tombs of the same civilisation which built the Jordanian city of Petra.

The kingdom aims to nearly double the annual number of tourists it attracts to 30 million by 2030, with the sector projected to become one of its top revenue earners.

And global travel agencies are already planning to offer packaged tours.

"There is a lot of potential for Saudi tourism - we know this from the pent-up demand we have within our own database," said Mr Justin Wateridge, managing director of Britain-based Steppes Travel. - AFP