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Tourism in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is easing up restrictions on women even further as it seeks a push for tourism with a new visa policy. In the latest move, the Kingdom has allowed women to rent hotel rooms without a male guardian present, and foreign couples can share rooms without proof of marriage. This may not appear much but is a significant effort to open the country for visitors and shifts away from an oil-dependent economy.

The new one-year multiple entry visa scheme marks the first time the country is allowing people to visit solely for tourism purposes. For the launch, the Kingdom has been highlighting certain UNESCO sites and other attractions including the Red Sea. The country aims to increase tourism’s contribution to GDP to ten percent. It needs to be seen if foreigners will visit Saudi Arabia as an ideal tourist destination. Many ardent travelers might be excited at the opportunity but beyond that, there may not be an initial influx of tourists.

Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has introduced deep reforms in the country, lifting a ban on cinemas and the world’s only ban on women driving. The once-feared mutawah, or religious police, has been rendered powerless and cannot reprimand women anymore. Last year, he said that women didn’t need to wear abayas but should dress modestly.

A few Saudi women have shunned the black body-shrouding abaya and embraced bright colours despite the risks of provoking conservatives but are still demanding greater freedom. It seems that Saudi Arabia, once seen as the ultra-conservative Islamic Kingdom, is undergoing a sweeping liberalisation drive.

There is still a long way to go and critics maintain that more efforts are required for women’s rights. The male guardianship system is still present and women don’t have the freedom to study, work, or get married on their own choice.

However, restrictions on travel have been lifted along with permission to divorce, register marriage, and receive child guardianship. Many controls that made women as second-class citizens in their own country have been gradually dismantled.

This new trend suggests a bold push and acceptance for social liberties among young Saudis which may even stretch beyond the monarchy’s capabilities. The younger generation wants to attend concerts, watch WWE matches in Jeddah, and go clubbing. The hardliners are alarmed by the pace of reforms they see as un-Islamic challenging their social values. A tussle between two opposing mindsets can create chaos in the Kingdom.

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