Let’s be honest, when you are tossing around ideas for your next trip or vacation, Saudi Arabia is probably not near the top of the list. In fact it’s probably not even on the list. Truth be told, like most people you probably thought that it was impossible to get a tourist visa to Saudi and that you need to have a contract and a business visa to get in the country.
Until last year, you would be absolutely right and there would be no point in planning a tourist trip because you would not be permitted to enter the country. Since then however, Saudi Arabia has introduced a new tourist visa system and citizens of many countries are even eligible to apply online for an e-visa.
Recognizing the writing on the wall, the Saudi government realized that the country will not be able to survive forever on oil revenue alone and that it needs additional sources of diverse income if it is to survive the energy revolution. Only problem is they have for many decades insulated themselves from the rest of the world and tried the go-it-alone strategy.
We look at this as a fantastic opportunity to visit and explore a part of the world that very very few people have ever experienced. For now, pretty much anywhere you go in Saudi you are likely to be the only tourists the local folks have ever seen. As a globe trotter, you are not following anyone’s trail, you are blazing new trails and discovering new “must-see” places. The last time we had an opportunity like this was when Myanmar opened its doors to tourists after decades of isolation.
In the mid 2000 ‘teens, before tourists were allowed, we had the opportunity to live in Saudi for about 5 years – working of course. Our base was in the capital Riyadh but we did take the opportunity to explore the country and we got to see some simply amazing places.
In future posts, we will talk about all sorts of things that you need to be aware of when traveling through Saudi – everything from where to go, what to wear, how to behave, what to eat, and so on. For now though, let’s just have a brief sampler, a taste of things to come and some of the places you can explore on your first trip to the Desert Kingdom.
Just because there have never been any foreign tourists, doesn’t mean there is no tourist infrastructure. Domestic tourism thrives so there are plenty of hotels and travel agencies. You will most likely arrive at one of the main cities, Jeddah or the capital Riyadh. Here you will find many quite modern malls to explore as well as traditional markets or “souq”. Just be aware that the malls (and everything else) close temporarily several times a day during prayer times.
On the outskirts of Riyadh you can spend a couple of hours wandering around probably the largest camel market on the planet. You might be used to seeing horses transported in their own special trailers but here there is a much more pragmatic approach to livestock transport.
A little bit further out of town and you reach the edge of the plateau on which Riyadh is built. The road plummets down hundreds of feet to the desert floor below. The sight looking back at the escarpment is breathtaking and looks like something straight out of a cowboy western.
Just as in many cities in Europe, you can still see remains of the old city wall just on the outskirts of the city. Scattered throughout the area are dozens of buildings and villages that haven’t yet been classified as heritage sites but probably will be soon. For now you are free to walk around through these buildings – go anywhere and take photos to your heart’s content.
Remember, wherever you are in Saudi, the desert is never far away.