Responsible tourism in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia might be offering tourist visas for the first time ever, but this doesn’t mean it’s necessarily ready for tourists. Our holiday supplier for Saudi Arabia is only considering running trips from October 2020, and even then is proceeding with extreme caution. It’s a caution that the country isn’t showing. Saudi Arabia launched its visa scheme with a glitzy campaign telling tourists to ‘be the first to witness a land of fascinating journeys’. In the first ten days after visas were released, 24,000 people entered the country on a tourist visa. The country hopes for a tourism boom, but you only have to look at destinations like Morocco and Tunisia to see how sudden tidal waves of tourists aren’t without their own problems.

Saudi Arabia is in a rush to prepare for new visitors, appointing hundreds of tour guides overnight, and racing to give its UNESCO sites the necessary facelift before they meet their fans. But there aren’t currently hotels offering tourist-friendly rates. You won’t see many Morrocco-esque riads or lovely lived-in guesthouses – yet. Things are changing very, very rapidly on the tourism scene.
What hasn’t changed, though, is the fact that Saudi Arabia is a deeply religious country with absolute rule, and an extremely conservative society. There is no free speech, there is active discrimination against women, and the country is the second largest producer of fossil fuels. At Responsible Travel we’ve only ever boycotted one country, and we don’t boycott Saudi Arabia – we sell holidays, not countries, after all. But don’t think people should visit with their eyes shut to Saudi’s unsavoury side.
This isn’t the only reason to hesitate: make no mistake, much of Saudi Arabia’s culture is inaccessible: the cities of Medina and Mekka are straight-up off limits to non-Muslims. The stuff you can see, like ancient petroglyphs, are hard to find unless you’ve got an expert guide. It might be easier to visit Saudi, but it’s certainly not the easiest place to visit: not logistically, not morally, and not financially, either – a guide alone can cost $500 a day.
Rain begins with a single drop
– they said, as the driving ban lifted for Saudi women. But this is a country where it rarely rains.

People and culture

Gender segregation

Saudi Arabia practices strict gender segregation. Women have very little role in public life and their freedoms are curtailed by a strict guardianship system. This means there are many things – like marrying, or even leaving a domestic violence shelter, which they can’t do without permission from their male guardian. It was only in 2018 that women were allowed to drive. It was as late as August 2019 that women over 21 were told they didn’t have to seek permission from their guardian to travel abroad – though Human Rights Watch points out that this isn’t enough, as ‘male guardians could seek a court order to restrict female relatives’ travel’1.

These recent steps look like real progression, but the reality is that they don’t amount to much at all. Just weeks before the driving ban was lifted, a number of women’s rights activists were imprisoned, and nine are still behind bars. The country still has no anti discrimination laws in place, so there’s really nothing stopping active discrimination against women in everyday life. Until 2016, the country’s religious police had the power to arrest offenders on the spot. Now they can only report them, but people have no problem accosting women in the street if they appear to act out of line. And the gender pay gap is chasm-like: Saudi Arabia ranks 145th out of 149 surveyed countries2.

As a tourist you’ll only experience a fraction of the problem. As part of enticing people to visit the country, rules like wearing an abaya, or of speaking to men who aren’t your relatives, have been lifted – but only for tourists. It’s very hard to get an objective view of what life is like in such a segregated society.

Human rights

Saudi Arabia has a terrible human rights record. Thanks to absolute rule and strict Wahhabi religious laws many personal freedoms are severely curtailed. The US State Departments 2004 report calls the human rights record ‘poor overall with continuing serious problems’3 whilst Amnesty International lists various occurrences that violate human rights, such as ‘torture as punishment’, ‘no free speech’ and ‘no protests’4.
After North Korea and China, Saudi Arabia has the most deadly capital punishment system in the world, executing 148 people in 2018. Deera Square in Riyadh (known, affectionately enough, as ‘Chop Chop Square’) is still the site of public executions on Fridays after prayer. The condemned are beheaded in front of a crowd. Drug-related offences are dealt with incredibly harshly, as are crimes as abstract as ‘disobeying the ruler’. A small number of Shi’ite Muslims live in Saudi Arabia, but there’s evidence that they have been heavily persecuted under the country’s religious exclusivism.
The world has condemned Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen. The two countries have been in conflict since 2015. Human rights Watch has counted 90 unlawful airstrikes on homes, hospitals and schools, and killed thousands of innocent people in the process. War-induced famine is currently causing millions to starve. UNICEF have called it a ‘major humanitarian crisis’, and the UN’s World Food Programme say that ’10 million of them are one step away from famine’.

Migrant workers

Saudi Arabia relies heavily on guest workers from other countries – it has one of the largest immigrant populations in the world and they make up 37 percent of the total population. You can guarantee it will be guest workers who’ll be developing much of the newly-needed tourist infrastructure. Filipino, Bangladeshi, Indonesian, Pakistani, and Indian workers have long made up much of the country’s workforce, especially in poorer-paid construction and service industry jobs, so there’s a real wage gap between migrant and Saudi demographics. The Saudi government has faced criticism from legal bodies and employers over how it treats foreign workers, Human Rights Watch has decried the ‘slavery-like conditions’1 in which many of them live.

What you can do:
If you visit Saudi Arabia, pick a tour that allows you to meet with local women and visit business ventures run by women – female-led businesses have been on the rise since their ban was lifted in 2018.


Water conservation

Saudi Arabia produces a lot of oil, but water is its biggest problem. Saudi Arabia uses a lot of water, over 24,000 million cubic metres a year, and 84 percent for agriculture. The country is 95 percent desert, and to meet its huge H2O overheads, it owns the three largest desalinisation plants in the world (which each use an eye-watering amount of energy to run) and plunders its rapidly-depleting underground aquifers. In fact, Saudi Arabia consumes double the world average measure of water per person1. Riyadh is by far the biggest problem, using 32 percent of the water supply, on average 337 litres per person per a day (the world average is closer to 130).7

The problem is set to get worse as the population grows, and of course, with the arrival of more tourists. Hotels are huge drain on water supplies – think of all those fluffy white towels in the laundry. The Red Sea Project will use a battery plant to produce 56,000 cubic metres of water a day8.

Fossil fuels

There are many reasons why Saudi Arabia isn’t considered a green destination. The desert is one, but its reliance on, and production of, between nine and eleven million barrels of oil a day is another. Oil was discovered in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s and it transformed the country from desert dead end to world power, with the world’s second largest reserve after Venezuela. Now, 45 percent of GDP comes from oil and it’s made Saudi Arabians very, very rich.
Burning fossil fuels is the single greatest cause of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the major culprit in the current climate crisis. Seeing the oil fields as you fly over the country can be sobering. The supply won’t last forever, which is why the government has started courting tourists. It’s Vision 2030 project aims to make its fledgling tourism industry worth 10 percent of its GDP. It’s not 45 percent, but it’s a start.
What you can do:
Saudi Arabia has rolled out the welcome mat to tourists, and this might be an acknowledgement that its oil is running out. For some, it’s hard to stomach visiting, and therefore condoning, Saudi Arabia’s stubborn marriage to fossil fuels.

The Red Sea

Compared to the oil-plundered Gulf Sea or the over-fished Mediterranean, the Red Sea is relatively unspoiled, supporting some 1,200 reef species9. Researchers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology noted that the north Red Sea’s corals were proving remarkably resistant to rising water temperatures and acidification10.

Thanks to limited tourism, the Saudi Arabian coast is ‘one of the last untouched marine environments.’ But this is about to change. Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea Project, announced in 2017, has big hopes for developing the area for tourism whilst creating a ‘net positive conservation impact’. The company promises to leave 75 percent of the destination’s islands undeveloped, with nine being designated as having ‘significant ecological value’. It also promises to be 100 percent carbon neutral.

But there’s big money involved. The project hopes to raise $2.7 billion in construction contracts, and it will court the world’s leading hospitality firms, eventually attracting one million tourists a year11. On the other side of the Red Sea, built up resorts like Sharm el Sheikh show a coast ruined by tourism. It’s a stark warning that the Red Sea Project better heed.

What you can do:
Steer clear of big resorts, as these are the least water-efficient way to visit the country. Your money will go straight to multinationals, rather than local businesses. Instead look out for tours that feature homestays and smaller hotels.

Responsible tourism tips

Historically, Saudi Arabia has been closed to tourism. Business trips and pilgrimages have made up the majority of the travellers to its four international airports. The country started offering electronic Visas in September 2019. After two years of false starts, 49 countries including the USA, the UK and much of continental Europe, can get visas, though there are some restrictions in place. Saudi Arabia is a controversial country to visit. Consider whether you will enjoy the trip, and return with a clear conscience. Booking a responsible holiday that supports local people, not governments, can help. Saudi Arabia has a terrible track record for human rights (using the death penalty pretty indiscriminately), womens’ rights and religious tolerance. LGBT travellers will, unfortunately need to be careful, as homosexuality is outlawed in the country. Homosexuality, adultery and sex outside marriage are all illegal. Heterosexual tourists are allowed to share a hotel room without presenting a marriage certificate, but this is a new development and the same privileges are not extended to anyone else. You cannot bring pork products or alcohol into the country. Both are illegal and you won’t be able to find either on sale. Foreign tourists need to dress conservatively at all times, covering their shoulders and knees. Women are currently exempt from wearing the full-length abaya required of citizens. You should heed FCO advice about no-go areas. In the south of the country, follow advice and stay away from the Yemen border.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: Peter Dowley] [Landscape: 12019] [Woman wearing an abaya: Nouf Kinani] [Oil fields: Planet labs, Inc]