Saudi Arabia Travel: What You Need to Know
Saudi Arabia is a destination so far off the typical traveler radar that locals are often surprised to see a Western tourist pass by. It is one of the most difficult countries for foreigners to access, but recently Saudi Arabia has been opening to the idea of tourism. It’s a pivotal time to explore the kingdom, taking in its fascinating blend of ultra-modern and extremely traditional.
Before booking your trip, here is what you need to know.
Tourism Supports the People
While we may not agree with all of a country's politics, we at Geographic Expeditions do in general believe that thoughtfully done travel is a way to support the local people. As we know from situations elsewhere in the world, the opinions and actions of a government are not always a reflection of the opinions and desires of the general population. The opportunity to speak to everyday folks and hear about their lives, their joys, and their concerns forges important connections and opens up the minds of travelers—and potentially the world.
More Than Islam & Oil
There is more diversity and depth to Saudi Arabia than you expect. Although the media portrays it as an Islamic nation of wealth and opulence, there are many more layers to the country, from a vibrant art scene and tribal traditions to prehistoric rock carvings and Ottoman architecture. These are aspects you won't know about if you don't go.
Saudis are generally well traveled and tens of thousands have been educated in the United States and other Western countries. In many ways their lifestyle is recognizably American, with a car culture, sprawling cities, high-rise buildings, and up-market malls with familiar designer labels and fast-food outlets.
Saudis are generally extremely hospitable and it’s best to be open to spontaneous events. You may just be invited in to someone’s home for tea and enjoy interacting with artists and vendors at a camel market outside Riyadh.
A Cultural Shift Is Under Way
Change is afoot under the leadership of the new, 33-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Since he came to power in 2017, the country has opened its first public movie theaters and women have been given permission to drive and attend sporting events. But change doesn’t happen overnight, and the kingdom remains a closed society in many ways.
While talking with locals is a great opportunity to hear their take on the Saudi way of life, the recent changes, and what they expect in the way of future reforms, it’s best to let them initiate the conversations that could be sensitive. Some people will talk more freely than others.
Hub of Art & Cultural Sites
Saudi Arabia has a vibrant contemporary arts scene, particularly in Jeddah and Riyadh, and traditional arts and crafts are being revived in various regions. (GeoEx’s Saudi Arabia at a Crossroads itinerary includes visits to some remarkable city galleries, as well as to Abha, where traditional house painting is done by women.)
Saudi Arabia is home to many UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including the impressive rock art of Jubba, the old town of Jeddah, and Diriyah (the Turaif complex), the historic seat of the House of Saud (the ruling royal family). Please note that Meda’in Salah, “the Petra of Saudi Arabia,” is closed for renovation until approximately 2020.
Islamic Customs Shape the Saudi Arabia Traveler Experience
It’s important for a traveler in Saudi Arabia to be respectful of the country’s Islamic customs. For example, the call to prayer happens five times each day and when it rings out, everything shuts down for 10 to 15 minutes. If you are in a shop, the shop will close with you inside it. Cars do not stop, however.
Women travelers need to wear an abaya, a loose-fitting, robe-like dress (on GeoEx’s trips to Saudi Arabia, the group will purchase these in Jeddah). Generally, women are not expected to cover their hair, but it’s a good idea to bring a headscarf just in case.
Alcohol is forbidden. Travelers are not permitted to bring in their own supply. All luggage is X-rayed at the airport upon arrival and if any alcohol is found, it will be confiscated and the person carrying it may be denied entry.
Get Ready for a Road Trip
For a deep exploration of Saudi Arabia, be prepared for some long drives. Going by road is the only way to reach remote parts of the country in order to see another way of life. It does take a little more time, but you get to soak in changing landscapes and meet the people who live and work far from the pulsing cities. This results in a richer travel experience and a deeper connection with the country and its residents.
It’s Important to Be Flexible
Even with the most meticulously planned itinerary, unexpected things can come up—a flight schedule may change, a key may be misplaced, a caretaker may be sipping tea with friends instead of awaiting your arrival—which upends plans. As experienced travelers know, to get the most out of any journey, it’s critical to be flexible, have a sense of humor, and go with the flow. It’s often the unexpected that is most memorable!
Go with a Good Travel Company
If you are an adventurous traveler interested in exploring a fascinating country amid social transition—not to mention being among the first Westerners to visit Mugha’ir Shu’aib (the Caves of Jethro)—you’re probably wondering what the best way is to travel to Saudi Arabia. As with any unusual destination, it’s important to plan your trip to Saudi Arabia with a travel company that is reliable, knows how to negotiate the red tape, uses trustworthy on-the-ground contacts, and is familiar with local customs, such as where camera-wielding Western tourists are—and aren’t—welcome and how women travelers will be received.
Visas are required and obtaining them can be complicated. The country has not yet launched a tourist visa program, so other types of visas must be used. It’s best to have a travel company to assist with the process, to prevent possible delays or denials, and to provide the required notarized letter of introduction.
“GeoEx fits the bill,” explains destination expert Starla Estrada. “With our deep in-country experience, comprehensive safety net, and local contacts, we’ve crafted a remarkable itinerary that immerses travelers in Saudi culture in both urban and remote areas. To make sure our travelers get the most out of their experience, we’ve limited the size of our groups to 14 and have lined up an Arabic-speaking trip leader who is a Middle East expert. Going on a trip to Saudi Arabia is a wonderful opportunity to learn about this influential country’s past, present, and future.”
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