HOME to Islam’s holiest cities of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia’s tourism industry has been largely fueled by religious pilgrimage – the Haj, one of the five pillars of Islam, and the Umrah, which can be performed any time of the year, drive in droves of Muslim pilgrims.
The kingdom’s General Authority for Statistics recorded 23.9 million pilgrims who performed the Haj in the last 10 years, or an average of 2.39 million annually.
The kingdom’s religious tourism sector, currently valued at over US$5 billion, is gearing up to welcome 30 million Haj and Umrah visitors to Mecca and Medina annually by 2025, the Saudi Gazette reported.
While Saudi Arabia, regarded as the “Guardian of Islam”, considers religious pilgrimage as a key tourism pull, the country is positioning to loosen its strict implementation of Syariah law. It may even consider allowing women to wear bikinis.
The conservative nation is hoping to further boost visitor arrivals by tapping luxury tourists. Prince Mohammed Salman, Saudi Arabia’s new heir to the throne, has disclosed plans to develop a luxurious Red Sea resort on a stretch of coastline in the country’s northwest not only to spur tourism but also to enhance and modernize the economy.
Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund described the project as an “exquisite luxury resort destination established across 50 untouched natural islands,” The Telegraph reported.
“The Red Sea project will be a luxury resort destination situated across the islands of a lagoon and steeped in nature and culture. It will set new standards for sustainable development and bring about the next generation of luxury travel to put Saudi Arabia on the international tourism map,” the report said.
Construction is set to begin in 2019 and the first phase of the project will be completed by 2022, according to the announcement. It hopes to host a million visitors a year by 2035.
The Red Sea project is part of Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 – a plan to diversify the Saudi economy and wean off dependence on oil.
Special laws will be constituted to allow women to wear bikinis on the resort instead of covering up in “abayas,” a modest robe-like attire, Prince Mohammed said.
Saudi Arabia implements some of the most repressive laws against women across the globe. Women are banned from driving vehicles and need to secure the nod of male family members before they can travel.
They are also made to cover their heads while in public; many Saudi women would wear niqabs or veils while outside their homes. In July, a woman was arrested in the conservative country for wearing a mini skirt and a crop top, but was later released without charges.
The kingdom also strictly enforces a ban on alcohol with harsh penalties for violators including caning or lashes. On top of that, unrelated men and women are banned from mixing.
With the planned development of the Red Sea luxury resort project, some things may just have to change, according to some.
In 2013, Saudi Arabia relaxed visa restrictions to attract more foreign tourists to the kingdom by launching the “Extended Umrah Tourism Programme”.
The program allowed foreigners from 65 countries on Islamic pilgrimage to stay for an additional 30 days; once their Umrah visas expired, they were converted into tourist visas, according to Prince Sultan bin Salman, head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities.
Saudi Arabia gives visa-free entry only to nationals of the Gulf Cooperation Council member-countries.