In 2018, Saudi Arabia finally opened its doors to tourists. Up until then, the country only permitted religious pilgrims, business travelers and expat workers. However, in October 2018, the ‘Sharek’ visa was unveiled which granted a 14-day period of stay to tourists with the visa. 

Now, Saudi Arabia is working tirelessly to position itself as a leading tourist destination. The country wants to shift its economy’s reliance on oil towards other markets. The tourism chief Ahmed al-Khateeb said in a statement. “Visitors will be surprised by the treasures we have to share – five Unesco World Heritage Sites, vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty.” It seems as if the country wants the international world to view it as a cosmopolitan, intriguing destination that is worthy of a visit. But the truth about Saudi Arabia poses a unique ethical dilemma to any interested tourists.

Saudi Arabia is striving to be more tourist-friendly

Saudi Arabia is striving to attract a western tourist market. To do so, it is eliminating certain conservative restrictions like- granting women rights to drive and travel without a guardian, curbing the powers of the moral police, permitting unmarried tourist couples to rent hotel rooms, and relaxing dress codes. The government expects 100 million annual visits with its new tourism initiative. It also hopes to increase foreign and domestic investment in hotels and associated amenities along with massive job creation. 

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

What does being a tourist in Saudi Arabia mean?

Saudi Arabia’s history of continued human rights violations has significantly tarnished its reputation in the global community. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the hands of the regime caused a global outcry. Within the country, restrictions of freedom of expression, rigid sharia law and the general disregard of the people and their needs have created an atmosphere of veiled oppression. On the outside, the country is a model for development and prosperity, but the lack of accountability to its people is glaring. 

Activists are detained regularly, women struggle for basic rights and migrant workers have suffered exploitation for years. In such circumstances, should a tourist consider the ethical implications of visiting such a country? A country that projects an image of progress to the world, yet encourages systemic oppression? While Saudi Arabia might have a lot to offer as a tourist destination, should tourists visit the country and contribute to an economy that supports such large-scale human rights violations?

saudi arabia
Historic city of Dir’iyah, a Unesco World Heritage Site.

While travelling and going on a vacation are recreational activities, a certain degree of morality comes into play when you choose to visit a problematic country. It may seem insignificant, because, after all, you are not directly partaking in any kind of injustice, yet the indirect link might somehow be enough to cause an ethical problem.

The counterpoint to this, however, is that every country in the world has been instrumental in inflicting some degree of injustice on people. Should we then, stop going on vacation all-together? Of course, not. As a responsible tourist, there is a certain degree of awareness we must possess and understand that visiting a country with a history of injustice, oppression, and violence does have moral and ethical consequences. 

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