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As Saudi Arabia continues its drive to attract tourists, authorities in the country appear to be reaching out to a particularly lucrative section of the market: LGBTQ travelers.
The website of the Saudi Tourism Authority (STA) seems to have had its Q&A section updated to state that gay visitors are welcome in the kingdom.
“Everyone is welcome to visit Saudi Arabia and visitors are not asked to disclose such personal details,” is the website’s response to the question on its FAQ page: “Are LGBT visitors welcome to visit Saudi Arabia?”
It is not known exactly when the website was updated. A spokesperson for the STA said the policy had previously been in place, but an archived version of the website on March 14, 2023 and before did not have the question and answer on the page.
Same-sex sexual activity is an offense in Saudi Arabia, according to Human Rights Watch.
According to the Human Dignity Trust, which campaigns for the rights of LGBT people around the world, trans people can also face prosecution in Saudi, with “substantial evidence of the law being enforced” and “consistent reports of discrimination and violence” against LGBTQ people.
LGBTQ+ travelers are a lucrative market, according to Darren Burn, CEO of Out Of Office, a luxury travel planning service for the community, and of Travel Gay, the world’s largest LGBTQ+ travel platform.
“Research shows they spend more money in a destination than heterosexual couples, and tend to travel more times a year,” he told CNN.
“It’s a very interesting and lucrative demographic, and countries are plowing major revenue into [attracting] it.”
Whether LGBTQ travelers will feel comfortable traveling to Saudi, however, is another matter. Burn said that destinations such as the Maldives and Dubai, where homosexuality is a criminal offense, are popular, but without more assurances from the authorities, Saudi Arabia could be a tougher sell.
“It’s pretty vague, and doesn’t offer the assurances that would make me feel able to send our clients safely to the destination, but anything on the website about LGBT travelers is a good starting point,” he said.
“I can’t think of another Middle Eastern tourist board that has even mentioned them, except Qatar in the run-up to the World Cup, and even that was vague, saying that everyone was welcome.
“But my concern is what the reality is like in the destination. Are they saying that a same-sex couple can check into a hotel and get a double bed without any issues? My hunch would be that that’s not the reality.”
‘My friend suggested I get a new phone’
One gay traveler who visited Saudi Arabia on a work trip in October 2022 – before the website was updated – told CNN that he felt “in the closet” during his stay.
The UK traveler – who did not want to be named – spent time in AlUla, one of Saudi’s tourism-focused destinations.
“It was OK for a week or so but after that I suddenly realized it gone back to living a life in the closet and not being my true self. More out of fear of what might happen – the unknown – rather than anything specific that happened,” he said.
“I was sent an email [by the company I was working for] with what I should do. They basically told me to delete anything even remotely LGBTQI related from my phone – all photos, apps, newspapers and magazines. My Egyptian friend suggested I just get a new clean phone.
“I told close colleagues, but I wasn’t [generally] talking about being gay, or my past experience. I kept it to myself, and suddenly realized that I wasn’t able to talk about what I would normally talk about, and that’s not how I want to live. In practice everyone was very relaxed, but the law’s the law.”
However, he added that one “revelation” from his trip was “how friendly and welcoming the Saudi people were.
“They’re really open to changing attitudes, but they haven’t really [been in contact] with the Western world in their lifetimes. Unless you meet people [from other cultures] and talk about differences there’s no way of learning from them.
“I found that what the law and the authorities say is very different to how the locals interact with you.
“If you were to go there and be overtly gay I’d be quite concerned – I wouldn’t feel comfortable going there with a partner – but it’s a country that’s changing very quickly.”
Following Dubai and Qatar
Saudi Arabia is focusing on expanding its tourism sector, appealing to archaeology fans at the likes of AlUla, where ruins have been left untouched for almost 2,000 years, and creating entire new cities to appeal to visitors.
CNN’s Richard Quest, who visited in September 2022, wrote that: “I have seen countries change before, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like the change taking place in Saudi Arabia. Saudi’s change is deliberate, deep-reaching and dramatic.” He also flagged its “contradictions,” however – after his visit, 81 people were executed in a single day.
Human rights researcher Nora Noralla told CNN that the kingdom is following Qatar and Dubai in its bid to attract LGBTQ+ travelers. But she warned that it might not be on the travelers’ terms.
“In Dubai there are a lot of gay influencers, and as long as you understand the context of the area you’re in and respect the traditional culture and not show your queerness in any way, you’re OK,” she said.
“That requires you to be cis-passing. If you show up and you’re non-binary, or male with makeup on, or obviously trans, and come to the region you’ll be denied entrance. I wouldn’t say LGBT people are welcome – they say same-sex couples are welcome, and that’s entirely different.”
She also warned that what goes for “rich tourists” doesn’t fly for others. “Queer residents know what lines they can cross, and it’s all down to your economic and social background,” she said. “They realize the risks with this kind of activity and know how to do it in a discreet way. This [the new move] is basically for Western tourists.
“They’re trying to copy the Dubai model so they can get some of their money. There’s a lot of competition [for money]. If you’re a cis, gay Westerner you’re welcome. If you’re trans and cis-passing, you’re welcome. But anything that remotely shows your queerness, you’re not. And I think if anyone crosses a line, they will definitely act swiftly.”
Despite his skepticism, Darren Burn thinks Saudi could potentially be a gay-friendly destination.
“We’d welcome a conversation with the tourist board and government to work out a way that LGBTQ+ travelers can genuinely travel in a safe way, to see them put money behind promoting to LGBT communities, and making changes to LGBT rights locally to make Saudi Arabia an authentic destination that appeals.
“We all know the reason destinations are welcoming tourists now is because they think that’s their future income stream, but that’s good, because it might drive changes in equality law if it’s good for business.”
He added that travel can broaden minds on both sides.
“Without travel and tourists coming to the destinations, mindsets would never change – as long as they can do so safely, LGBTQ+ travelers can break down barriers,” he said.
“Destinations do change – but I don’t think we’d be sending customers any time soon until we can receive assurances that they’d be safe, welcome and able to check in.”
An STA spokesperson said in a statement: “Everyone is welcome to visit Saudi, provided that they follow and respect our culture, traditions and laws, as you would when you visit any other country in the world.
“Like other governments, we do not ask visitors personal questions and we respect the right to privacy.”