Saudis trying to promote kingdom as scuba diving destination

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Posted by on July 12, 2006 at 10:02:18:

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) - Saudi Arabia seems an unlikely destination for fun in the sun.

Yet here was a Saudi prince at a tourism conference in neighbouring Dubai, busily trying to sell his country as a hot - but not swinging - vacation spot: there'll be no alcohol, and no eating in public from dawn to dusk during the holy month of Ramadan. Women are to be covered from head to toe, and any woman under 40 must be accompanied by a male relative.

With those caveats, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, until recently accessible to only a handful of non-Muslim tourists, is opening its doors, beckoning curious world travellers to its mysterious and hidden treasures.

The change springs from the new policies of King Abdullah, who ascended the throne last August after the death of his half-brother, King Fahd.

Abdullah, a reformer, wants to show that his country is more than just a breeding ground for Islamic extremism.

"He wants to show the world a different face to the kingdom," said Mishari al Thaybi, a Saudi writer and analyst for the London-based newspaper Al Sharq al Awsat. "It's all part of a greater plan to open up the country, to show that though it is Arab and Islamic, it is also modern and moderate."

"Tourists are the best ambassadors for any country," Mishari added.

The king, together with the country's tourism commission, wants to wash out the stain left on the Saudi reputation by the Sept. 11 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were from the oil-rich desert kingdom.

At a recent tourism exhibition in Dubai, Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdel Aziz, secretary-general of the Saudi tourism commission, announced the kingdom was in the process of licensing 18 tour operators to issue tourist visas to non-Muslim visitors from the West and Asia.

For the past six years, since the country first cracked open the door to tourism, Saudi Arabian Airlines had been the country's only licensed operator of tours to an ultraconservative land known for being reclusive.

"It is not a problem for us to open up. We just want to make sure we are doing it right," Prince Sultan said.

Saudi officials characterize the number of nonreligious visitors so far as only "a handful," but they hope to boost that to 50,000 a year initially and to 200,000 annually by 2010.

But the opening comes with strict rules.

According to the tourism commission, only single-entry visas will be issued. Coed tours will be allowed - as long as a father or brother is with any woman under 40. Visitors must follow local customs, and a booklet printed in several languages will be distributed to tourists instructing them on the country's strict social traditions.

"The tourists must comply with the social conducts of the kingdom, to know what's allowed and what's not allowed, what to wear and what not to wear," said Saad al-Kadi, adviser to Prince Sultan.

All female tourists will be required to dress according to Saudi tradition: covered from head to toe with only their face, hands and feet exposed. And in the most conservative city, the capital Riyadh, women must wear a black robe over their clothes.

If tourists choose to travel during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, they will not be allowed to eat or drink in public during fasting hours.

One other thing visitors won't be able to do is tour Islam's most holy sites, including the cities Mecca and Medina. They are off limits to non-Muslims.

But that still leaves a lot of places for a tourist to visit.

There is an ancient rose-coloured Nabatean city carved in sandstone, along with hundreds of cultural and archeological sites, such as the remains of the Hijaz railway - built in 1900 to allow Muslim pilgrims to travel to Saudi holy cities from other parts of the Ottoman Empire.

Mountains abundant with vegetation and wildlife offer a verdant contrast to the desert, a sprawling expanse where visitors can take excursions.

And there's scuba diving. With more than 1,600 kilometres of coast along the Red Sea and just under 800 kilometres of beach along the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia is home to some of the world's most spectacular dive sites.

"It is the last untouched tropical coral reef in the world, simply because of Saudi Arabian paranoia. And thank God for it," said Eric Mason, executive manager of Dream Divers in Saudi Arabia. "This place is a divers dream come true."

Mason's company has been offering scuba diving trips for more than three years, drawing coral reef enthusiasts from Europe and Asia.

An avid fan of a country he has lived in for 35 years, this Nigerian-born son of an Italian mother and English father calls Saudi Arabia home and says the campaign to boost tourism will improve its image abroad.

"Saudi Arabia is supposed to be a police state, it's supposed to be a hotbed of terrorists," said Mason. "People are frightened of it. They don't understand it. Now they will come and see the truth for themselves."

But how will women scuba dive when they are supposed to be draped in a black robe? Both al-Kadi and Mason said there can always be an exception to the rules, as long as its not flaunted.

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