My eye-opening trip suggests Saudi Arabia isn’t quite ready for mass tourism

Jeddah Corniche, Saudi Arabia
The Crown Prince wants to invest some $800 billion in building a world-class tourism industry in Saudi Arabia - Getty/iStock

“Going anywhere nice?” asks the sales assistant in Boots as I hand over the tube of heavy-duty sunscreen on a cold January afternoon. I give her the honest answer, which is that I’m not really sure.

After all, who would go to Saudi Arabia? According to the latest available estimates, around 80,000 Britons make the trip a year. But the vast majority of those are religious pilgrimages and business travel. In fact, the ultra-conservative desert kingdom didn’t even offer tourist visas until 2019. So what changed?

In a word: money. As much of the world looks to move away from fossil fuels, the world’s second-largest oil producer can no longer rely solely on black gold for its economic future. Instead, a modernising Crown Prince wants to invest some $800 billion (yes, billion) in building a world-class tourism industry. But is Saudi Arabia really ready to welcome visitors?

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Jeddah is regarded as Saudi Arabia’s 'more liberal' city

Anyone who fancies finding out may face one immediate obstacle: getting a visa. In theory, travelling on a UK passport qualifies one for a visa on arrival at the airport. But there’s a catch: it will cost you around £100. Instead, I’m told, it’s best to apply for an “electronic visa waiver”, which costs just £30. Yet, when I try to complete the obligatory online form, the whole system crashes.

For any regular traveller, this kind of cumbersome admin is irritating at the best of times. But it’s particularly frustrating given that Saudi Arabia has supposedly been inspired by the success of the UAE (and Dubai in particular) – a country which basically eliminated visas for Western travellers years ago. If you want to build a tourism industry, why bother with red tape?

Arriving in Jeddah – the Red Sea destination regarded as Saudi Arabia’s more liberal city – things start to look up. Having flown (from London) with the national carrier, Saudia, we go straight to a snazzy new terminal. As happens all too often, I’m filled with embarrassment as I think of the cramped and crumbling infrastructure back home. Meanwhile, the immigration process is seamless, as a friendly border agent in a niqab welcomes me to the Kingdom.

Inside Jeddah international airport
The modern new Jeddah airport has an international feel - LightRocket/Getty

For much of its history, Saudi Arabia was amongst the most devout Islamic societies on earth. Yet the current Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or “MBS”) has embarked upon a controversial modernisation drive, including removing powers from the religious police. Some changes, like allowing women to drive, have made global headlines. But it is the less reported shifts that are likely to affect tourists.

Take restaurants, for example. Ten years ago, every establishment in Saudi was mandated to maintain sex-segregated spaces. These days, the well-heeled denizens of Jeddah can mix freely in the likes of Nobu and Novikov, or pass the time in Shoreditch-style coffee shops with strange names (walking along the gorgeous corniche, I spot one called ‘Overdose’). Even small local restaurants have scrapped the old rules.

Coffee shop, Mecca province, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Even some local establishments are modernising - Corbis/Getty

Likewise, the imposing religious dress codes have been massively relaxed for locals and tourists alike. Outside of visiting mosques, visitors are merely advised to keep their knees and shoulders covered. Women choosing to eschew the once-obligatory head covering will encounter few problems – with a sizable number of younger locals making the same choice.

Will tourism trigger more liberalisation in Saudi? I’m not so sure. For one thing, the Saudi monarchy appears to have taken a page from the book of another conservative Islamic country, the Maldives, and greenlit the construction of a number of special resort islands, where Westerners can frolic in bikinis without offending any local sensibilities.

The first of these, the St Regis Red Sea, which opened in January, with rooms costing upwards of £1,000 per night. Since it is accessible only by boat or sea plane, I decide to take a different option which will let me see more of Saudi society. With that in mind, I book into the majestic Park Hyatt Jeddah on the southern end of the corniche.

St Regis Red Sea resort on the western coast of Saudi Arabia
St Regis Red Sea is the first special resort island to open - AFP/Getty

As five-star hotels go, it’s as luxurious as anywhere I’ve stayed in the Middle East, albeit slightly more conservative. Unlike comparable hotels in Dubai or Muscat, for example, there is no chance of getting an alcoholic drink. Likewise, the hotel’s fitness facilities are strictly sex-segregated (though the manager assures me that, far from being a sexist decision, the women’s facilities are even better).

After exploring the luxurious grounds of the Park Hyatt, I hail a taxi to Jeddah’s historic district, Al Balad. With its ancient coral-stone buildings and tiny alleyways, the old town is both fascinating to look at and thrilling to explore. Even better, it’s completely free of the irritations I’ve encountered in other Middle Eastern destinations – none of the “good price!” sales patter you get in the Dubai souk, or swarms of dangerous mopeds like in Marrakech.

With the throngs of burqa-clad women and worshippers dashing into mosques, Al Balad certainly feels conservative, but not oppressive – at least for a Western man passing through. But just when I think I’ve got a feel for the place I stumble across something totally unexpected: an open-air comedy show.

Jeddah historic old town, Al Balad
'Al Balad certainly feels conservative, but not oppressive' - Moment/Getty

Chatting to the organiser, a young Saudi woman representing a local arts charity, I find out that the comedian on stage is actually running a class: teaching a handful of locals the art of writing jokes. Pleasantly surprised, I tell the story to a local back at the hotel. “That’s nothing,” he says. “I was invited to a salsa class there a few weeks ago.”

Jeddah may be a city on the march. But will anyone actually make the seven-hour trip from London to go on vacation here? The luxury hotels seem confident enough: Four Seasons and Raffles are both set to open in Jeddah this year. With the Saudi monarchy spending lavishly on sporting events, including the 2034 men’s football World Cup, they are clearly optimistic that people will come.

As I enjoy my final offering of the Jeddah sunset at the Park Hyatt, I receive an email from Saudia about my upcoming flight. Due to the amount of empty seats, it says, I can enjoy a second seat or even an entire row in return for paying a little bit extra. By the standards of modern airlines, it’s a considerate and entrepreneurial touch. But as an indicator of a healthy tourism industry, it’s not exactly a great sign.