Saudi Arabia is known for being a conservative (to put it mildly) nation and a difficult one to visit. The country does not offer a visa for tourism purposes and most of the travelers that the country welcomes visit for religious purposes or work. However, Saudi Arabia is getting ready to open up its hidden gems and cultural treasures to the rest of the world and things are changing.
Travelling to Saudi Arabia- A Guide
Saudi Arabia Tourist Visa & Tourist Developments
The country has announced plans to roll out a new visitor visa soon, which is exactly why I’ve decided to write this article. The new electronic visa for Saudi Arabia would be a single entry visa and would allow foreign visitors to enter the country for 30 days.
The Saudi Arabia eVisa is part of a bold plan to boost the number of visitors that travel to the country. The kingdom already welcomes millions of Muslims who make the pilgrimage to Mecca each year. Besides the introduction of an electronic visa system, Saudi Arabia is developing a major theme park, new resorts on the Red Sea Coast and more.
Even though the country is making several changes, there are still several things to be wary of before thinking about a trip to Saudi Arabia. You need to keep in mind their rules, their traditions, and their culture.
Things to be Careful of – Saudia Arabia Travel Tips
The new emphasis on tourism is occurring at a time of change in Saudi Arabia. From granting women the right to drive to allowing female-only gyms, positive changes are happening. The Saudi government announced to end a 35-year ban on cinemas too. Saudi Arabia hopes to attract 30 million visitors by the year 2030, up from 18 million in 2016.
But that doesn’t mean that all the rules are gone. There are still plenty of thing you need to be careful of. If you are thinking about traveling to Saudi Arabia there are a few things you MUST know before booking your trip (once the tourist visa becomes available).
- Couples should be married – at this time obtaining a visa to Saudi Arabia is likely to be a more difficult task if you are unmarried. Travelers of many foreign countries Couples should be married- if you want to travel with your partner to Saudi Arabia you must apply for a visa through an embassy or consulate and requirements are very specific. Unmarried couples may get their visa denied. Hopefully this will become more relaxed in the future.
- Women travellers must have a sponsor– Saudi Arabia has several cultural and political rules in place. Women traveling alone must be met by a sponsor upon arrival in the country. It is common that your sponsor holds your passport during your stay. Female travel to Saudi Arabia is undeniably difficult and full of barriers that we are not used to in the West. You can read about a female reporter’s experience in Saudi Arabia here.
- Be respectful of the local culture – Women aren’t allowed in public without a male guardian. Beware that public displays of affection are frowned upon and drinking alcohol is a big no. Smoking bans in public places are being enforced more rigorously.
- Don’t expect nightlife to be the same as in the West – All alcohol, nightclubs, theatres etc are banned in Saudi Arabia. Entertainment at night in the country is about dinner parties or other hosted events. You cannot party late while visiting Saudi Arabia. Often events are separated by gender.
- You might need to keep the camera in the bag – most travelers, like myself, today love taking photos of everything they see. However, the government in Saudi Arabia is cautious about tourists using their cameras or phones in public as they can be perceived as espionage or terrorism plotting. When visiting government buildings or other high-traffic locations including mosques and markets be sure to keep your camera out of sight. I think I’d have to think of it as a free digital detox or I’d go mad.
- Playing music in public is forbidden – if you begin playing music in public it might be perceived as causing public disturbance and could get you in trouble. Once you’re in your hotel you can listen to your tunes, but always keep your neighbors in mind. FINALLY a rule I can get behind. I absolutely hate people playing music one their phones in public places, so I’m all about this rule.
- Religious items from non-Islamic religions are banned – laws in Saudi Arabia forbids public observance of any religion other than Islam. If you have a crucifix or a Bible or any other religious objects is best to leave them at your hotel. This was also the case in the Maldives, though they didn’t actually check my bags or anything. But yeah, it might be a hard one for anyone with any religious tattoos.
- You need to dress respectfully. Dress is really important and not just for women. Women cannot expose their arms, legs, and especially the chest area. Exposing your chest may get you serious jail time besides harassment. Men should wear trousers and avoid shorts also so as not to offend. Jeddah and Dammam cities can be a bit more liberal, but it’s still best to abide by the rules. Though the rules have relaxed in recent years an Abaya may still be required to be worn by women in some areas. The Abaya of Saudi Arabia is a black sheet/cape-like garment that covers the body from the neck down.
What to See and Do in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia welcomes Muslims from all over the world, and only Muslims are allowed to visit La Medina and the Mecca. These two destinations are about religious pilgrimage and non-Muslims are not allowed.
However, there are plenty more tourist places in Saudi Arabia for all to visit:
- Riyadh Kingdom Centre Tower – this is an iconic symbol of Saudi Arabia’s capital. It is both a shopping mall and a residential complex. It’s home to an observatory and it rises at over 300 metres. Kingdom Centre is only the third-tallest building in the country. Once the country opens up to tourists it will be a great place to visit and shop and will no doubt become one of the top Saudi Arabia tourist spots.
- Empty Quarter or Rub’ al Khali – this destination will surprise you. It is the largest contiguous sand desert in the world. Visitors can visit on a camel safari, drive 4x4s through the dunes or visit with the nomadic tribes that live here. Once visas start being issued this is place is a must, however, you might want to consider traveling with a guide.
- Port Jeddah and its coral houses – Jeddah is known for being a more open city and has a more relaxed attitude toward foreign visitors and the dress code. Jeddah offers a one of a kind sight, the “Coral Houses” built out of blocks coral harvested from the sea.
- Lost City of Mada’in Saleh – Saudi Arabia is home to a city that dates back to the Nabatean Kingdom of the 1st century. Many Saudis visit Mada’in in Saleh, but it is far from being crowded. You will be able to explore this area in peace.
- Diving in the Red Sea – the country has impressive coastlines and has access to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. In terms of Saudi Arabia tourist attractions snorkeling and scuba diving in the Red Sea is one of the highlights. You might want to consider Allah’s Reef and Boiler Wreck. Unlike Egypt, Saudi Arabia does not have large crowds and you’ll be able to appreciate nature’s beauty more calmly. Once the new Red Sea Coast resort area is complete this will be a wonderful area to visa.
As Saudi Arabia prepares to welcome tourists like never before, it is likely that you will be able to discover a new Saudi Arabia. And though some of their rules, restrictions and practices may seem offensive and upsetting to those of us living in a much more liberal and feminist society, we must welcome the attempt that Saudi Arabia is making at becoming more open.
Personally, I wouldn’t feel comfortable visiting Saudi Arabia as a woman for another couple of years, I think it would be a bit too much culture shock for me. But if you’re the wildly adventurous type then Saudi Arabia could be a great challenge for you when the tourist visa becomes available.