For many decades, almost all tourists to Saudi Arabia were Muslim worshippers traveling to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. Many of them went there to participate in the annual pilgrimage, known as the Hajj. The spiritual journey that started this week is required of all capable adult Muslim believers at least once in a lifetime.

The practice of any other religion in public aside from Islam was strictly forbidden. However, that has begun to change rapidly in recent years.

According to a New York Times article, “Buddhist monks attended an interfaith gathering in the kingdom last year, and Jewish visitors recently planted date palm trees in Medina, Islam’s second holiest city. An American-Israeli man turned up in the capital, Riyadh, with a website proclaiming himself ‘chief rabbi’ of Saudi Arabia.”

In addition, the Saudi Kingdom has been pouring billions of dollars into its tourism industry in recent years in an attempt to diversify its oil-based economy. In 2019, the Kingdom first opened up to foreign tourists and began offering electronic visas to almost 50 countries.

In a turn that was unlikely anticipated by the Saudis, the Times report indicated that “Christians of many stripes — including Baptists, Mennonites and others who call themselves ‘children of God’ — were among the first people to use the new Saudi tourist visas.”

The number of Christian tourists has seen a steady rise, the study noted. Evangelicals seem to be leading the trend, touring the nation where synthetic Christmas trees used to be “smuggled in and sold as contraband.”

The report explains that the surprising Evangelical attraction to the country could be the result of viral YouTube videos, claiming that Saudi Arabia is the site of the “real” Mount Sinai.

The biblical mountain is where the Ten Commandments were given to Moses by God, according to the Book of Exodus. While mainstream archaeologists believe it to be Jabal Musa in Egypt, in the middle of the Sinai Peninsula, some argue it is Jebel al-Lawz in northwestern Saudi Arabia.

This idea gained traction initially as a marginal Evangelical belief, thanks to an American nurse named Ron Wyatt. In the 1980s, Wyatt infiltrated Saudi Arabia and was arrested for it. The Times report mentioned Wyatt’s “series of dubious claims,” including one stating that he discovered debris from ancient Egyptian chariots under the Red Sea.

Combining interest and adventure, several Christian tourism companies are offering to visit both mountains — in Saudi Arabia and Egypt — as part of their travel packages to the region.

Last year, the London-based World Travel and Tourism Council reported that Saudi Arabia’s travel and tourism sectors are expected to have the fastest growth in the Middle East over the next decade, with the potential of surpassing neighboring Dubai in the near future.

Jump-starting tourism to the Kingdom has been a strategy led by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS), who took the reins of the Saudi economy in 2015. Along with a series of social reforms, he introduced his ‘Vision 2023’ — officially defined as a “unique transformative economic and social reform blueprint that is opening Saudi Arabia up to the world.”

 

Cultural and heritage project to rehabilitate and develop the historical Diriyah, “the jewel Kingdom” (Photo: SPA/Latin America News Agency via Reuters)

 

The long-term plan is to overhaul the Saudi economy from its dependency on the oil industry, then to modernize it and develop the Saudi nation. The Saudi aspiration is to drive the tourism sector so that it will contribute 10% to the national income, as opposed to 3%, and add a million more jobs.

The jewel in the crown is expected to be MBS’ mega-project, known as the futuristic city Neom. The high-tech metropolis will lie near the Strait of Tiran, close to the Jordanian border and not far from the borders of Egypt and Israel.

By his own demeanor, the Crown Prince has been an exemplar of his vision for the country. Ever since taking the helm as the official successor of his father King Salman, he has met with several Evangelical delegations. ALL ISRAEL NEWS Editor-in-Chief Joel Rosenberg has met with MBS on two occasions, including once following the murder of Saudi Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

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