Ryad (AFP)

In the historic center of Ryad, a small group of five Poles enter Masmak Fort, aware of being among the first foreigners to take advantage of the openness to tourists of the ultraconservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Inside the nineteenth century adobe castle, the Saudi guide in white dress and plaid keffiyeh explains the old rules of Arab hospitality.

"Before coming, I was worried about the clothes I had to wear, customs, strict regulations but we were positively surprised," says Sophia, sunglasses and long dress revealing the forearms.

"It's normal, we must take into account the traditions of each country," says her husband Andrzej, doctor with gray curls and orange t-shirt.

With his fascinated friends like him by the Gulf countries, he says he has already visited Qatar in recent years because he has not obtained a visa for Saudi Arabia.

Ryad decided in September to grant tourist visas in this country hitherto open to businessmen and pilgrims going to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina - these two cities are reserved for Muslims only.

Travel agency owner Methaab Abdallah is pleased with the decision to attract tourists and is trying to adapt to them.

"The authorities are going much faster than us and with means greater than ours.We must adapt to this rapid change.As travel agencies, we are dependent on human resources, the training of guides ..." he explains.

- "Respectable" -

The development of tourism is one of the thrusts of the reform program which aims to prepare the largest Arab economy, completely dependent on black gold, for a post-oil era.

Promotional campaigns give pride of place to ancient sites and picturesque landscapes. But the authorities also rely on big cities like Ryad or Jeddah (west) via a massive investment in entertainment.

The capital of eight million inhabitants seems inert, despite the opening on October 11 of its cultural season, inaugurated by an unprecedented concert of Korean pop group BTS global success.

With its wide sidewalks and affluent shops, the Al-Tahlia street in the center of Ryad is often compared to the Champs-Elysees but seems far from the bustle of Paris. Only a few families or groups of friends are seated on the restaurant terraces.

In the middle of the avenue, a large entrance of building challenges with its flashy front, a gigantic luminous inscription "Soho Club" and the noisy resonance of a boisterous music.

The gatekeeper with a wide smile warns right away: "It's a respectable club". A red blazer clutching the chest and wireless earphones planted in the ears, he wants to give proof. Inside, the subdued atmosphere and cozy decor is reminiscent of English pubs but only a few families enjoy a meal in peace.

- "Economic importance" -

"We are for tourism but foreigners must respect our traditions and customs," insists a passerby firmly. For young people, expectations are often different.

"Do not talk to me about Ryad, I've just returned from a weekend in Dubai!" Laughs a 27-year-old commercial who has preferred to remain anonymous.

"When we have holidays, we go to Dubai, why would foreigners come here?" Asks his friend.

"Things are getting better in Riyadh, it's better in Jeddah, but it has nothing to do, you have everything in Dubai, lots of places, drinks ...", he begins to enumerate. before stopping, alcohol being banned in Saudi Arabia including for tourists.

In a rapidly changing Saudi society, economic planning consultant Abdallah Al-Fayez says the state should not be content with attracting foreigners, but must focus on improving "tourism infrastructure". ) and to raise awareness of the importance of tourism in terms of economic resources and job opportunities ".

"It is a daring experience, it is difficult to predict the issues it will pose to Saudi society and the extent of resistance by conservatives," the economist observes.

© 2019 AFP