“Welcome welcome. You are our first foreigners of the week…”, the tour guide at the entrance to the camel festival in the Saudi Arabian desert is talking to some Western women. He then adds: “But please put your headscarves back on, we’re not in Riyadh now.”
The guide, who calls himself Mr Faisal, has been assigned to meet and greet tourists, but the only group today is a mix of ex-pat Aramco employees and US medics.
“Next year, we’ll see thousands here,” Mr Faisal says with a smile.
The King Abdulaziz festival is something of a dress rehearsal for Saudi Arabia’s opening night. As part of its ambitious programme of reforms, the kingdom will soon begin issuing traveller visas for the first time, including to Australians, opening up one of the last frontiers of global tourism.
Falling oil prices and a desire to modernise has pushed tourism to the forefront of the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, a blueprint to prepare the biggest Arab economy for the post-oil era.