“Welcome welcome, you are our first foreigners of the week!” the tour guide at the entrance to the camel festival in the Saudi Arabian desert exclaims to the Western women. “But please put your headscarves back on, we’re not in Riyadh now.”
“Mr Faisal” has been assigned to meet and greet tourists, but the only group today is a mix of expat Aramco employees and American medics. “Next year, we’ll see thousands here,” he says with a smile.
The King Abdulaziz festival is something of a dress rehearsal for Saudi Arabia’s opening night. As part of its ambitious programme of reforms, the kingdom will soon begin issuing traveller visas for the first time - opening up one of the last frontiers in global tourism.
A combination of financial necessity driven by falling oil prices and a desire to modernise has pushed tourism to the forefront of the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030,...