Saudi Arabia Opens its Doors to Tourism

You may have heard recent news that Saudi Arabia has, for the first time, opened its doors to general tourists.

Would you go?

For most Westerners, we mostly know about Saudi Arabia through media headlines on human rights and strict religious rules. But, with the country announcing it is opening to tourists, I’m trying to learn more about what there is for travellers to see and experience.

It will be fascinating to watch Saudi Arabia open to the world. Will its people be ready to receive tourists? And can tourists be respectful enough of local culture? Saudi is no stranger to foreigners entering the country, mostly for work in its oil industry, but working there and visiting as a tourist is obviously very different.

Canada, U.S., and U.K. are on the list of countries from which tourists are eligible for visas to Saudi Arabia. As of September 2019, eVisas are available online.

Social Impact Traveller Queries

As a Social Impact Traveller, I am looking at the idea of Saudi as a tourist destination from a few different perspectives with a particular interest in some of its most precious sites such as Al-Ula, a UNESCO World Heritage site similar to Petra. But, some of the things I am thinking about – and don’t have the answers – are: Can we visit Saudi Arabia and have meaningful interactions with locals and support locals, particularly women? While the country is known to be a wealthy nation, is it not meaningful to support local business and women entrepreneurs as they gain their independence? Are we showing support for Saudi governance or a neighbouring war by travelling there, or are we making progress by meeting locals and sharing cultures and ideas?

Where do we draw the line?

Travel writer Heather Greenwood Davis explored some of these issues in a story she wrote for the Globe and Mail.

Safety Matters 

The Government of Canada tells travellers to exercise a high degree of caution in Saudi Arabia, and avoid all travel to the Yemen border and two other areas. However, a similar advisory is stated for Peru, which safely welcomes millions of visitors each year. There is also currently a note to ‘exercise a high degree of caution’ due to terrorism in the U.K.

It’s worth noting that travel insurance policies in Canada will not cover travellers to places the government says to avoid all travel, but it will cover ‘a high degree of caution’. In other words, your insurance will cover you if you go and need it, for whatever reason.

Respecting Local Culture

If you’re considering a trip to Saudi Arabia, it will be key to pay attention to its Violations to Public Decency and Penalties which has been outlined for tourists. For example, wearing improper clothing, or clothing with certain symbols on it that promote drug use or porn. Taking photos of a person without their permission is also a violation. While women in Saudi are expected to wear full covering called an abaya, tourists are expected to dress modestly, and women should have their knees and shoulders covered while in public. No alcohol is permitted. The penalty stated is a fine.

Preparing for Visitors

The country is gearing up to see some high-end resorts and restaurants, ticketing kiosks and amenities and a new cultural manifesto. At present, the historic sites are open for three months of the year during the Winter at Tantora festival. By October 2020, they will be open all year-round.

While several over-the-top developments are currently underway in Saudi Arabia as it prepares to entice tourists, one of the top reasons travellers will have this country on their radar is because of its archaeological wonder, Madain Salih.

Exploring Al-Ula

About 300 kilometres north of Medina is Al-Ula. A lush oasis valley, it is sheltered by sandstone mountains running through Al-Ula. Long ago, it created a perfect environment for civilizations to grow.

Saudi’s Ancient Archaeological Site

Most of us have heard of the lost Nabatean city of Petra in Jordan.

Read more about a Social Impact Traveller journey in Jordan.

But, within Al-Ula is the little known Archaeological Site of Al-Hijr, also known as Madain Salih, the country’s first UNESCO World Heritage property. UNESCO describes the site as the second largest Nabatean site, next to Petra.

Madain Salih

Madain Salih shares the same desert rock-carved architecture as Petra. There are 131 rock-cut monumental tombs in total. The most impressive is a large tomb carved into a monolithic rock, much like the Treasury in Petra. A team of researchers is carrying out an in-depth archaeological survey in Al-Ula, but it is believed that, similar to Petra, much of the city has yet to be unearthed.

You can read more about visiting this historical site on the BBC,

What to See

Beyond the ancient Nabatean site, there is more to see around Al-Ula. Elephant Rock is a rock formation resembling an elephant with a long trunk. There is also Dadan, where the ancient Dadanian kingdom’s metropolis is starting to be unearthed.

Where to stay in Al-Ula?

Currently, there are few options for accommodations. However, by 2035, Al-Ula expects to have some 9,000 rooms to accommodate the two million tourists expected per year.

Getting to Al-Ula

Fly to Al-Ula’s Prince Abdulmajeed Bin Abdulaziz Airport. There are also daily and regular buses that run between Al-Ula and major Saudi towns and cities including Tabuk, Medina, Yanbu, Jeddah and Riyadh. Give yourself a few days to explore Al-Ula and the surrounding areas. This also includes the Red Sea.

Worth Noting: Red Sea Development Project

As part of Saudi Arabia’s vision to change its economy, which tourism is a part of that, the country has established the Red Sea Development Project which touts itself as the “world’s most ambitious luxury tourism development, offering an exclusive experience of unparalleled diversity for discerning global travellers.” It’s key priorities include: setting a new standard in sustainable development, protecting the environment, and offering access to some of Saudi Arabia’s most important cultural treasures.

According to CNN, the 28,000 square kilometre Red Sea Project alone is projected to create 35,000 direct jobs and 35,000 indirect jobs and contribute an estimated $5.8 billion per year to the kingdom’s economy.

With the project being billed as ultra-luxe, it’s unlikely that most of us will be able to afford it. However, putting sustainability at the forefront of a leading hospitality project is positive.

Did you know?

Interesting Facts about Saudi Arabia

  • Ride-share services like Uber are available in Saudi Arabia
  • In 2018, women were granted the right to be able to drive vehicles
  • Arabic is the official language of Saudi Arabia and English is the informal second language.
  • There are 13 International Airports in Saudi Arabia.
  • Saudi Arabia has four distinct seasons and a climate that varies between regions.

Want more?

Find out about these other bucket-list destinations

Explore Jordan, and the lost Nabatean city, Petra

Stay at an Ecolodge in Egypt

Support local enterprise in Peru