Saudi Arabia tourism: So what is there to see?
- Published 13 October 2019
Saudi Arabia's recent decision to fling open its doors to foreign tourists has sent a mild ripple of excitement running through the travel industry. A vast and hitherto largely closed country is now there to be experienced.
So what exactly is there to see in Saudi Arabia? Why go at all, in fact? It's hardly a budget destination like South East Asia, it's blazingly hot for eight months of the year, there is no political freedom, no free speech, no alcohol allowed, very little mingling of the sexes and - like several other countries in the Middle East - it has a much-criticised human rights record.
Well the first thing to note is that Saudi Arabia is far more diverse in landscape and scenery than you might imagine.
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Yes, geographically, the bulk of the country is desert but then there are the soaring, juniper-clad, 3,000m- (9,900ft) high mountains of the Asir in the south-west, the azure reefs of the Red Sea, the date palm oasis of Al-Hofuf and the winding backstreets and spice markets of Jeddah.
I've been lucky enough to travel around much of the country most years since the late 1980s - Saudis often joke that I've seen more of their country than they have - so here is a shortlist of my favourite places to visit.
This steamy, Red Sea trading port was the capital until 1982, when it moved to Riyadh. Jeddah today is a beguiling and culturally rich melting pot where every race of the Red Sea is represented.
It is a perennially warm, open-air city where Egyptians sit at café tables, puffing on shisha waterpipes and playing backgammon beneath the street lights. Yemeni tailors squat cross-legged in clothing shops working late into the night while Somali, Eritrean and Djiboutian women lay out displays of spices in the street market.
In the winding, cobbled backstreets of the old district, known as the Balad, it's not unusual to hear the language of the Ethiopian highlands mingle with Arabic and Hindi.
Jeddah is also the gateway to Mecca and Medina for the two million-plus Muslims who make the Hajj pilgrimage each year. Further up the coast there are beach resorts and scuba diving opportunities, although many of the offshore coral reefs have been destroyed in recent years.
There are expatriates who have lived in Saudi Arabia for more than a decade yet never visited this gem down in the far south-west corner of the country, next to Yemen. They are missing a treat. The landscape can be lush and verdant, even in high summer and I have even seen a juniper forest turn white after a sudden hailstorm.
An estimated 500,000 wild Hamadryas baboons inhabit the mountains, along with hornbills, eagles and dazzling blue agamid lizards. The landscape is dotted with basalt stone watch towers, a legacy of the tribal fighting that used to take place here a century ago.
In recent years the region has opened up to domestic tourism, with a cable car descending from the lofty heights to a picturesque hillside village called Rijal al-Ma'.
In a canyon called Wadi Habala, named after the rope that used to lower provisions down the cliff face to the villagers who lived on its slopes, there are breathtaking views over the hazy mountain ridges that descend towards the Red Sea.
The ancient Nabataean ruins in the far northwest of the country are remarkable, not just for their preserved carvings reminiscent of Petra in Jordan to the north, but also for their stark and beautiful desert setting.
This is the Hijaz, the historic western edge of the Arabian Peninsula, where TE Lawrence fought the Turkish army in the Arab revolt of 1917 and where remnants of the old Hijaz railway can still be seen.
For years the Saudi authorities largely kept quiet about Mada'in Saleh as the religious fundamentalists were less than keen on promoting something dating from a pre-Islamic civilisation, known in Arabic as "the Age of Ignorance".
Under the new, multi-billion dollar tourism promotion scheme, it will be very much on the map.
The date palm oasis of al-Hofuf covers a vast area of eastern Saudi Arabia, said to be the largest of its kind in the world, and creates a lush green world of streams and gardens.
But the really spectacular attraction here is the ghostly cave complex inside al-Qarah Mountain, registered in 2018 as a Unesco cultural heritage site.
The natural caves, carved by wind and water erosion, take a bit of climbing to get into but are well worth the effort, especially as they are significantly cooler than the heat outside.
A word of warning
Saudis, for the most part, welcome foreign visitors but this new openness does not come without risks. Where two very different civilisations come into contact - the liberal West and the conservative Saudis - there is always the chance of a misunderstanding or offence.
Women should never be photographed in public and Saudi husbands can be fiercely protective of their wives' modesty. Outside the main cities of Riyadh, Jeddah and Eastern Province many local people have never had any contact with Westerners and may be suspicious, especially when cameras and phones are brought out.
So be careful where you point them and always ask permission!
How to visit
- Visas can be obtained online for nationals of 49 countries
- Women are only required to dress "modestly" and do not have to be veiled
- Unmarried couples can now share hotel rooms, breaking a longstanding taboo in this religiously conservative Islamic society
Is it safe?
This is not the first time Saudi Arabia has made a major push to attract tourists. The last time was in 2000, when it hired French alpine instructors from Chamonix to take holidaying Saudis rock-climbing and paragliding.
But grand plans to expand this fledgling industry ground to a halt the following year after the 9/11 terror attacks in the US which were carried out by, among others, 15 Saudi nationals.
Since then the country has fought and defeated an insurgency by al-Qaeda in the mid-2000s and is currently trying to extricate itself from a war in neighbouring Yemen that has seen cross-border missile strikes.
Despite that, the country is largely safe with minimal crime and violence (though if you're a British citizen it is always best to check the Foreign Office travel advisory ).
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Is this Bali? No, it's Saudi Arabia: new video highlights the kingdom's diverse terrain
The kingdom's ambitious new tourism campaign showcases various locations across saudi arabia, and hints that tourist visas could be coming soon.
Could Saudi Arabia be set to introduce tourism visas in the coming days? If you were to go off a slick new tourism video for the kingdom currently doing the rounds on social media, it would certainly seem so.
The kingdom's ambitious new campaign showcases various locations across Saudi Arabia, likening them to more famed destinations around the world: Al Ula looks like Petra in Jordan, the desert of Tabuk looks like Utah and the Red Sea looks the like the Caribbean.
Clips show parts of Saudi Arabia that look like the lush rice terraces of Bali, the snowy plains of Siberia and the craggy, green mountains of Switzerland.
"Be the first to visit an exciting, new destination. Get ready to see the unseen," the campaign says. It also features a countdown clock, which at the time of writing, had 12 days and 13 hours remaining – suggesting tourism visas will start from next weekend, around Friday, September 27.
Talk about the imminent release of tourist visas has reached fever pitch recently, after they were first announced in 2017.
Previously, most visitors to Saudi Arabia were Muslims visiting to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage, or those on business trips. Tourist visas were only issued on an intermittent basis, and only for select group tours. It was particularly difficult for single women to visit the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia first unveiled its plans to welcome tourists to the kingdom in December 2017, but in the years since, there had been little news – until recently.
Late last week, the head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, Ahmad Al Khatib, said Saudi Arabia would open its doors to international tourists before the end of this year.
Mr Al Khatib made the announcement during a meeting of the World Tourism Organisation in Russia.
It expands on the initial announcement in 2017, when Prince Sultan bin Salman said "all government approvals" were in place for the launch of electronic visas to "all nationals whose countries allow their citizens to visit" Saudi Arabia.
The proposal to issue the visas was then outlined in a report for the Arabian Travel Market 2018.
It highlighted the kingdom's target of 30 million visitors annually by 2030, and announced its intent to allow women older than 24 to visit the country without a male guardian.
Female tourists below that age will still need to be accompanied by a family member.
The kingdom announced several leisure projects in 2018, including a Six Flags-style theme park in Riyadh to be built by 2021. The theme park is set to have many record-breaking rides – including the world's fastest roller coaster.
A much-publicised Red Sea Project was also set to boost the luxury tourism market in Saudi, and is being marketed as an "equivalent to the Maldives" .
Located between the coastal cities of Umluj and Al Wajh, the project is being built in a region spanning 30,000 square kilometres and will comprise a natural archipelago of pristine islands and a vast desert landscape filled with mountain peaks, historical and archaeological treasures and a dormant volcano. The project will be the first fully integrated, luxury, mixed-use resort in the Middle East and is expected to attract visitors all year round. It has been designed with a strong focus on heritage, culture and conservation and will provide 8,000 new hotel rooms once completed.
Check out our pick of the top ten tourist sites in Saudi Arabia below:
lf13 saudi tourism jeddah new JEDDAH: UNESCO's World Heritage Committee inscribed the old city of Jeddah and the Gate of Makkah on the World Heritage List in 2014. Pictured: windows covered with wooden screens known as "mashrabaiya" adorn traditional buildings in the old city of Jeddah. AFP Photo.
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The Complexities of Traveling to Saudi Arabia
By Felicia Campbell
As the largest country in the Middle East , the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a rich and diverse landscape: It’s home to the ruins of the Nabatean Kingdom in Al-'Ula, the Rub' al Khali desert, luxurious beach resorts in Jeddah , and the mountains of Taif, where roses bloom alongside groves of the most sought-after dates in the world. The capital, Riyadh, offers a fascinating juxtaposition of ancient souks and modern skyscrapers, along with natural wonders like the cliffs of Edge of the World park just outside the city.
Historically, however, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia hasn’t been a tourist destination for Americans.
Until 2019, visas were only issued for official business purposes or for religious pilgrimages to Mecca . Conservative laws and dress codes were enforced by the mutawa (religious police) who made arrests for playing music, wearing too much makeup, or being seen in public with a member of the opposite sex. These laws began to change in 2017 when Mohamed bin Salman became the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and launched Saudi Vision 2030 , a campaign to modernize the country and reduce the reliance on oil revenue. He stripped the power of the mutawa, and women were issued drivers' licenses for the first time. Additionally, movie theaters were built, international music festivals held, and tourist visas became available to visitors from 49 countries, including Americans.
These changes make it an exciting time in the Kingdom, with young Saudis enjoying newfound freedoms to connect with one another and with foreign visitors in public spaces that were for so long segregated. Around the world, social media feeds are being filled with images of this “new Saudi Arabia” as part of a massive marketing campaign by the Ministry of Tourism—it's just part of their plan to invest at least $800 billion by 2030 on everything from transportation infrastructure to entirely new cities.
Despite the intrigue of the newly opened country, there are also many things that haven’t changed and should be considered before booking a flight: significant gender disparity remains, alcohol is still illegal, and queer travelers will find a litany of laws that prevent them from existing as they would at home or, in some cases, at all—so-called “decency mandates” prevent men from wearing women's clothes for example, and trans travelers whose passports don't match their gender identity will likely be denied entry to the country. Even in situations where it might feel like no one is enforcing these rules, know that the government routinely monitors visitors' social media accounts, and compliance is expected for the entirety of your trip.
For some Americans, the cultural clashes feel too great to overcome. “Saudi Arabia is a controversial country to visit, and poses a real dilemma for many travelers,” says Justin Francis, co-founder and CEO of Responsible Travel. For Francis, however, that isn't necessarily a reason not to visit. “I strongly believe it is possible to travel responsibly in destinations with poor ethical records. Frankly, it would be hard to name a single destination with a clean record on the environment, animal welfare, and human rights.”
Anu Taranath, professor, racial equity consultant, and author of Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World , also encourages people to look at their travel decisions from a wider perspective. “Well-meaning Americans become quite vexed when considering going to places where they know a bit about what’s happening to a certain population, but that same conversation, I haven’t seen about home,” says Taranath. “The U.S. has a terrible record of preserving the dignity of Black folks, so would we tell people not to visit? It’s a conversation that never seems to come up.”
She suggests that tourists can use their trips, instead, as opportunities to widen their own perspectives about the world. “It’s an incredible privilege,” she says. “My responsibility is to move through these places with care and grace and learn about lives that are not like mine."
Darrell Wade, co-founder and chair of travel group Intrepid, visited the Kingdom last year, and while he doesn’t feel the country is ready in terms of infrastructure for the brand's organized trips, he would personally return and thinks that the opening of tourism is a good thing for locals and visitors. “I think travel is always a positive force for change," says Wade. “As travelers, we learn about new cultures and ways, whilst the hosts of our destination countries also get to meet new people and learn from them.”
Booking a trip to a country whose laws and values may not align with your own is a personal decision. For those considering a visit to Saudi Arabia, these are some of the key issues American travelers may wonder about, with logistical pointers to keep in mind on the trip itself.
Nada al Nahdi of Qairawan travel group in Jazan
Women's rights and modesty
As part of the effort to introduce a more moderate version of Islamic law, in 2018 women were granted the right to drive, have a passport , travel abroad, live independently without the permission of a male guardian, and, most visibly, they are no longer required to cover their hair with hijab, nor wear the abaya robe or the niqab full face covering. Yet there are still some modesty requirements. It's important to note that most restrictions impact local women more than they do visitors, but travelers are still expected to abide by most laws.
Modesty is legally defined and required for locals and visitors, and what’s considered appropriate often depends on the venue. Some Saudi women in larger cities still wear an abaya, but many forgo any kind of head cover. Similar to religious sites throughout the world, there are expectations when entering a mosque: both men and women must be covered to the ankles and wrists and shoe-less, and women should cover their hair.
In general, women should wear loose-fitting clothes that don't show skin above the knee or elbow, and men shouldn’t go shirtless or wear tank tops. Shorts are uncommon across the board.
Wearing clothing considered too revealing or anything that features offensive logos or slogans can result in a fine of 100 SAR/$26 (doubled for subsequent violations). What’s considered offensive isn’t limited to showing too much skin, pornographic images, or drug-related or profane slogans, it is also illegal to try to promote a religion other than Islam. That means wearing a crucifix or any other religious iconography should be avoided.
Olga Aymerich, a research officer for the United Nations in Iraq, was among the first to travel to the Kingdom when tourist visas became available in 2019. She says she observed that the way women dressed varied widely, even between neighborhoods of large cities like Jeddah and Riyadh, so she wore an abaya over her clothes, either open or closed, to avoid standing out. “I just felt more comfortable that way,” she says, adding that she didn’t cover her hair except when visiting religious sites.
Ellie Quinn detailed her time in the Kingdom on her blog, The Traveling Quinn , where she suggests female travelers purchase a robe-like abaya online ahead of time or at any mall upon arrival—good quality, black abayas made with a breathable material are generally available for around $25 (100 SAR), though you'll also find colorful and patterned options.
At gender-segregated public beaches, women swim in burkinis (which look like wetsuits) or in their abayas, and men keep their shirts on. However, at a growing number of private beaches, guests can wear bikinis and swim trunks. It’s a good idea to call ahead to find out what the specific dress codes are as some beaches in Jeddah, at the other end of the spectrum, do not allow abayas.
Today, unrelated men and women can legally interact with one another in some some public spaces, like malls and coffee shops—yet there are still gendered spaces, from female-only gyms to restaurants in smaller villages that have separate entrances and dining rooms for families and men.
Even at the Ritz-Carlton Riyadh, where Wade recently stayed with his wife, the duo learned that the swimming pool and spa were for men only. “When I asked if there were special hours for women, or another complex somewhere, I just got a ‘Sorry, there are no facilities for women’,” Wade says. He hopes—and expects—that this will change with the greater arrival of international tourism.
As public interactions between men and women are slowly becoming normalized, physical affection between couples still needs to be kept strictly behind closed doors. That means avoiding touching of any kind between opposite genders when in public. Holding hands, kissing, or hugging in public are considered “acts of a sexual nature,” and could incur a 3,000 SAR fine (about $800) for the first offense and a 6,000 SAR for a repeat offense. It is one of 19 public decency offenses punishable by fine , along with things like failure to pick up after your pet (100 SAR/$26) and littering or spitting (500 SAR/ $133).
When meeting someone of the opposite gender, it is customary to place a hand to heart, rather than extending it for a handshake. Conversely, those of the same gender will often greet one another with a hug or a kiss on each cheek. In Bedouin tradition, some men touch noses. Visitors should follow the lead of the local.
Travelers in the Saudi Arabian desert
In Saudi Arabia, same-sex marriage is not recognized and homosexual acts are punishable by law, as are any activities seen as disrupting public order and religious values. Social media posts depicting a homosexual relationship can be prosecuted as a cybercrime—making it especially important that queer travelers who decide to visit set profiles to private before arriving.
Some may question why LGBTQ+ visitors would want to visit any of the 69 U.N. member countries that criminalize homosexuality at all. Stefan Arestis and Sebastien Chaneac, who run the travel blog The Nomadic Boys to help inspire and inform gay travelers , have traveled to many of them, including Singapore , Malaysia, and Dubai. The couple have yet to visit the Kingdom, and whether or not to go is a topic of debate between them.
“It’s easy to have an attitude of ‘OMG, I would never dare go to a place that wants to throw me in jail, better to boycott them and spend my hard-earned dollars in a place that welcomes me’," says Arestis. “This way of thinking risks doing more harm than good. It’s more productive to get out there and support the local LGBTQ community ."
Meanwhile, Chaneac isn't convinced it's safe for them to do so. “The opening of tourism is a great thing, because with more tourism, there will be more LGBTQ+ visibility, and that could start to change things," says Chaneac. "But when you’re a gay person, you have to think of other things, like whether the law is on your side.”
Arestis notes that in most places that criminalize homosexuality like Dubai, travelers benefit from a double standard and are rarely penalized for violating local law—but Saudi Arabia is different and the penalties are known for being much more severe and should be taken at face value. “We suggest going back in the closet,” says Arestis.
Parvez Sharma, a gay Indian-American filmmaker who traveled to Saudi Arabia to complete the hajj, an experience he chronicled in the 2015 documentary A Sinner in Mecca, feels this pilgrimage is a beautiful and essential activity for Muslims like himself, but sees that as separate from general tourism.
“People save their entire lives to make the pilgrimage—for Muslims, we have to disregard our feelings [about the Saudi government] and focus on the religious aspects of the journey," Sharma says. He says he wouldn't visit if he didn't have the religious obligation.
According to the private, conservative societal norms, no one will ask about sexual orientation. “There is a thriving gay scene, very underground, and it would be fascinating to see," says Arestis. "If you are not a public figure online, then there is nothing stopping you from going. You just have to be careful and set your social media as private, and perhaps have a rehearsed girlfriend in case it comes up. But people need to understand that if something happens, if they have an interaction, if they are caught meeting or kissing [someone of the same gender], there is no one to protect them.”
Journalism, photography, and freedom of speech
Put simply, Saudi Arabia is a monarchy, where democratic principles of freedom of press and speech do not apply. According to Reporters Without Borders, a group that advocates for press freedom around the world, over 30 editors, writers, and photographers are currently imprisoned for statements in articles, photographs, and even social media posts that were seen as critical of the government. American intelligence agencies have concluded that the government of Saudi Arabi orchestrated the murder of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a notable dissident of the regime.
While tourists will not likely be writing critical op-eds while in the Kingdom, it is important to note that it is illegal to criticize the government, the royal family, or the Muslim faith in any way, either verbally or on social media. Politics, religion, and sex should not be discussed in a public setting or online, and cursing at someone or using foul language is a fine-able offense, as is using rude gestures.
“It's important to remember you’re a guest,” says Francis. “You’ve chosen to visit, so [you have to] play by the rules of your host country. It’s natural to want to ask questions, but you won’t be helping local people by interrogating them—free speech doesn’t exist here, and you could put them in a very difficult position.”
The most common offense that visitors are cited for in the Kingdom is unauthorized photography : Photographing a person (especially a woman) without permission or taking photos of an accident or crime is illegal and can result in a hefty fine (1,000 SAR/ $266). It is important to be particularly cautious in crowded areas like traditional markets, where it is easy to inadvertently take a photo of someone.
An ancient city in Al Jouf, Saudi Arabia
Other things to keep in mind when planning a trip to Saudi Arabia
Restrictions for non-Muslim visitors
Mecca is the one city that remains off-limits to non-Muslim tourists. Mecca and Medina are the two holiest cities for Muslims who visit for the Umrah and Hajj pilgrimages. The latter is obligatory for every Muslim who is financially and physically able to make the trip, so roughly 2 million pilgrims travel to Mecca for the Hajj each year, and these visits require a religious visa.
For other travelers interested in visiting a religious site, Jeddah is a better option, as it is home to the only four mosques in the country that allow non-Muslim visitors to enter: Al Taqwa Mosque, the Al Rahma Mosque on the Red Sea, Moroccan-style King Fahd Mosque, and the King Saud Mosque, a nearly 10,000 square meter structure designed by Egyptian architect Abdel Wahed Al Wakil, who is considered the most prominent living authority on modern Islamic architecture.
Prayer timing and Ramadan
Throughout Saudi Arabia, some shops and restaurants will close for 15 to 30 minutes during the five prayer times each day though the latest laws do allow many to stay open at this time. Prayer times change throughout the year according to sunrise and sunset, so check the daily prayer times online or in the local newspaper and plan around them. Playing music during prayers, even in the car or home, is illegal.
It is best to avoid visiting during Ramadan when it is forbidden to eat, drink, or smoke in public from sunrise to sunset. Many shops and restaurants close during the day or operate on shortened schedules, and some tourist attractions shutter for the month. The dates of Ramadan are based on the lunar calendar and change each year.
Nightlife has a different meaning in Saudi Arabia, as alcohol is illegal. The cities come alive after dark, and many coffee shops, shisha patios, and dessert cafes are open until 2 a.m. or later. Families walk the corniche or have evening picnics in the parks, and malls bustle with activity. Restaurants are generally open late to accommodate the lifestyle.
The best way to enjoy the history, culture and natural beauty of Saudi Arabia is to come prepared with a good understanding of the local laws and customs and a willingness to abide by them—a local guide can help you do that, particularly if you don't speak Arabic, and most hotels can provide recommendations of people for hire. Aymerich suggests hiring a new guide in each destination to make sure you’re getting the benefit of hyper-local insights and so you don’t get stuck with someone you’re not happy with for the entirety of your trip. Guides can also arrange for transportation if you want to get out of the city to explore more far flung locations.
To help single female travelers navigate Saudi Arabia, Nada al Nahdi , a Yemeni-Indonesian female traveler and blogger, who was born and raised in the Kingdom, and local Esraa Rayes organize female group travel throughout the country via their company, Qairawan .
Due to the pandemic, there are no more visas issued on arrival, but e-visas are quickly approved for American travelers. The online application includes the option to purchase mandatory insurance for 140 SAR/$37 and pay the visa fee of 300 SAR/ $80. The e-visa typically is emailed within minutes and is valid for one-year with multiple entries and stays of up to 90-days at a time. ( Proof of vaccination and a negative PCR test, taken no more than 72-hours prior to traveling to the Kingdom, are also required as of January 2021.)
“The visa process was so easy, but that was the only thing that was well organized,” Aymerich said, adding that visitors should be prepared to be amenable to changes in their itineraries once they're in the country. “You need to be flexible, willing to ask people for advice, and a little bit lucky. If you are looking for an easy trip, this isn’t it—but if you’re ready for an adventure, to experience new things, there is so much to see in Saudi Arabia, and the people are wonderful and excited to share their culture.”
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Here’s What You Need to Know Before Visiting Saudi Arabia
For the first time in its history, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced that will be opening its doors for tourism by issuing an electronic visa for visitors coming from 49 countries — including the United States.
Anyone over the age of 18 can apply for an eVisa . It costs approximately $120 and is valid for a period of one year with an option for multiple entry, and permits a maximum stay of 90 days in the country. Previously, the Kingdom issued only visitor visas for religious pilgrimage and business visas. This monumental announcement is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform program, Vision 2030 , which aims to reduce the country’s reliance on oil and diversify its economy by way of tourism and entertainment.
Over the past two years, the government has also announced the launch of several ambitious projects, including an entertainment mega-city in Riyadh (reportedly, twice the size of Orlando’s Disney World ), a futuristic beach destination along the coast of the Red Sea, and restoration of UNESCO World Heritage sites. By 2030, the government expects 100 million annual visits, increased foreign and domestic investment in hotels and associated amenities, the creation of million jobs, and an increase in tourism revenue from the current 3% to 10% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, according to Reuters.
To attract Western tourists and market itself as a tourist destination — on par with neighboring Gulf states— Saudi Arabia has eased some of its conservative restrictions, like granting women rights to drive and travel without a guardian, curbing the powers of the moral police, permitting unmarried tourist couples to rent hotel rooms, and relaxing dress codes.
Within the first 10 days of the introduction of the eVisa 24,000 visitors entered the Kingdom, according to Arab News . Although there is a lack of adequate tourism infrastructure, those curious to learn about and experience the country will find Saudi’s natural landscape and its welcoming locals incentive enough to visit.
If you find yourself heading to Saudi Arabia to explore the land uncharted to tourists, here are a few basic and cultural tips for first-time travelers to the Kingdom.
With this news, people are asking: Is Saudi Arabia Safe for tourists? Yes, Saudi Arabia is safe for tourists. As with travel to any other country in the world, be respectful of local rules and customs, be mindful of your surroundings, and carry out due diligence before traveling. Be sure to consult travel advisories before your trip.
Public spaces may be segregated, and you will find separate entrances or seating areas for men and women. Refrain from public displays of affection.
Seek permission before photographing locals. Under the public code of conduct , it is a punishable offense. Other offenses include vandalism of public property, playing music during prayer times, and dress code violations.
Female tourists are not required to wear the abaya (a cloak, previously mandated by the government). However, both men and women should dress modestly, avoiding tight fitting and revealing clothes in public. The official Visit Saudi tourism website provides further details on what this entails.
Stores and restaurants close during prayer times, five times a day. To make the most of your trip, plan your itinerary according to these times.
Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country. While non-Muslims are welcome and permitted to practice their religion in private spaces, preaching in public forums or on social media platforms is prohibited. Malicious propaganda against the country, government, and religion is a severe offense.
The sale, purchase or consumption of alcohol and drugs is illegal in the country.
You will find locals to be hospitable, generous, and as equally curious about you as you may be about them. It is not uncommon to be invited to share a meal or a cup of gahwa (Arabic coffee) and dates. Your hosts — and even strangers — will want to extend their welcome and offer a token of their hospitality, like food or even a small gift. It is considered rude to refuse such an offering. Just remember, always accept and consume food and beverages with your right hand.
If you are invited into a Saudi house, remove your shoes, unless your host insists you keep them on. In a traditional Majlis, (a sitting hall with floor cushions) you are expected to sit on the floor. If hosted elsewhere, you can expect a modern setup with armchairs and other furniture.
Saudis encourage and welcome Westerners asking questions about their culture. To avoid offending local sensibilities, it's best to steer clear of political or religious topics of conversation.
Familiarizing yourself with Saudi rituals like greetings and handshakes will always make a favorable impression with your hosts. “Marhaban!” (Welcome) is a common way of greeting and you may respond with “Marhabtain” (I give you two welcomes).
Men shouldn’t extend a handshake to a Saudi woman, unless she does so first. To err on the side of caution, place your hand over your heart and greet with a hello.
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WATCH: Messi shatters stereotypes in Saudi Tourism’s newest campaign
- Saudi Arabia
The campaign shines the spotlight on Saudi’s open and welcoming culture and the importance of inspiring young Saudi women to reach their full potential
Saudi’s national tourism brand ‘Saudi Welcome To Arabia’ has kicked off a global marketing campaign, featuring football icon and Saudi Tourism ambassador, Lionel Messi.
Launching across key target markets in Europe, India and China, the ‘Go Beyond What You Think’ campaign is anchored on consumer insights, which revealed there are still common misconceptions about the destination.
Addressing these misconceptions head-on, the campaign’s call-to-action encourages visitors to discover the “unexpected beyond outdated stereotypes”, with a hero video featuring Messi breaking down metaphorical ‘walls’ of various misconceptions about the country.
The video showcases Saudi’s diverse locations, weather and terrain – from the Red Sea to the mountains in Aseer, snow-covered Tabuk, the coastal city of Jeddah and Riyadh, its capital.
The Messi campaign highlights the Diriyah E-Prix, Riyadh Season’s theme park rides, AlUla’s hot air balloon flights and MDL Beast music events
The campaign is a combination of TV, social, digital, and OTA tactics activated over three months.
Come and see what Lionel Messi discovered in Saudi and experience a world beyond your expectations. #ShareYourSaudi #VisitSaudi pic.twitter.com/8pixzg8Khp — Visit Saudi (@VisitSaudi) January 26, 2024
It is the latest in a series of initiatives by Saudi Tourism to foster the “broadening of perspectives and bridging cultures through tourism”.
The campaign brings to life the UN Tourism, ‘Tourism Opens Minds’ Initiative that launched on World Tourism Day in Riyadh in September 2023, which extends an invitation to travellers “to broaden their horizons and explore uncharted corners of the world”.
Messi shares a close bond with Saudi Arabia
Lionel Messi is one of many international figures who took that pledge. Messi has a close connection with the kingdom being a frequent visitor to the country, including most recently with his wife, Antonella and their two children.
The campaign launches ahead of Messi’s much-anticipated Saudi return playing two matches with his current Club, Inter Miami, against Al Nassr on February 1 and against Al Hilal on January 22.
Shining the spotlight on female Saudi trailblazers
The campaign also places a spotlight on Saudi’s open and welcoming culture and the importance of inspiring young Saudi women to reach their full potential.
Messi celebrates the Saudi women leading the kingdom’s cultural transformation such as the Saudi Women’s National football team, motorsport athlete Dania Akeel, DJ Cosmicat, and Rayyanah Barnawi, the first Saudi woman in space.
Event-filled winter in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is hosting 17,000 events that will attract visitors this winter, with o ngoing events including Riyadh Season, Jeddah Season and Diriyah Season.
Events coming up include the Saudi Cup (February 23-24), Saudi Arabian Grand Prix (March 7-9), AlUla Arts Festival (Feb 9-March 2) and AlUla skies festival (April 10-27).
In other news, Saudi’s eVisa programme now includes 63 countries and special administrative regions, the GCC residents visa, and the free 96-hour Stopover Visa.
Stopover Visa holders are eligible for a complimentary one-night hotel stay during the stopover when booking with SAUDIA.
Travellers can use the Stopover Visa to explore Saudi and perform Umrah.
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Messi fronts new global campaign for Saudi Arabia tourism
The campaign places a spotlight on saudi’s open and welcoming culture and the importance of inspiring young saudi women.
‘Saudi Welcome To Arabia’ has kicked off another global marketing campaign featuring football legend and Saudi Tourism ambassador, Lionel Messi.
Launching across key target markets in Europe, India and China, the “Go Beyond What You Think” campaign is anchored on the common misconceptions about the destination. It invites audiences to experience the vibrant cultural transformation taking place across Saudi.
Those that know Saudi are encouraged to share positive experiences and memories on TikTok and social channels using the bi-lingual hashtags #ShareYourSaudi and in Arabic # السعودية_بعيونك ,.
The latest ‘Saudi Welcome to Arabia’ brand campaign is a combination of TV, social, digital, and online travel agents tactics activated over a three-month period.
The campaign brings to life the UN Tourism, ‘Tourism Opens Minds’ initiative that launched on World Tourism Day in Riyadh in September last year.
Messi has a fond connection with Saudi being a frequent visitor to the country, including most recently with his wife, Antonella and their two children last Spring.
Boldly addressing these misconceptions head-on, the campaign’s powerful call-to-action encourages visitors to discover the unexpected beyond outdated stereotypes,
This includes a hero video featuring Messi breaking down metaphorical ‘walls’ of various misconceptions about the country.
The video showcases Saudi’s diverse locations, weather and terrain – from the pristine waters of the Red Sea to the lush green mountains in Aseer, snow covered Tabuk, the coastal city of Jeddah and Riyadh.
The Messi campaign highlights the Diriyah E-Prix, Riyadh Season’s theme park rides, AlUla’s hot air balloon flights and MDL Beast music events.
Inspiring Saudi women
The campaign also places a spotlight on Saudi’s open and welcoming culture and the importance of inspiring young Saudi women to reach their full potential.
Messi celebrates the Saudi women who have been trailblazers in their fields and leading Saudi’s cultural transformation such as the Saudi Women’s National football team, motorsport athlete Dania Akeel, DJ Cosmicat, and Rayyanah Barnawi, the first Saudi woman in space.
Saudi comes alive during its sunny Winter Season – this year the country is hosting 17,000 events, making it ‘the world’s most happening winter’.
Ongoing events include Riyadh Season, Jeddah Season and Diriyah Season, with notable events coming up including the AlUla Arts Festival in February.
The campaign is launching ahead of Messi’s much-anticipated Saudi return playing two matches with his current Club, Inter Miami, against Al Nassr on 1 February and against Al Hilal on 29th January.
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Opening Up To The World: Saudi Arabia's Tourism Goals Gateway industries such as tourism, local manufacturing and smart services are generating jobs for future Saudi youth –and for the first time– opening Saudi Arabia to the world.
Aug 7, 2022
You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.
This article is a part of Bringing the World to Saudi , a special report sponsored by Saudia and developed by Entrepreneur Middle East in partnership with Lucidity Insights.
In 2016, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced that it was embarking on a unique and transformative economic and social reform called Saudi Vision 2030 that would open up Saudi Arabia to the world.
Vision 2030 is a deeply ambitious plan to unlock the Kingdom's vast potential, by creating a diversified, innovative, and world-leading nation. It has been designed to free the Kingdom from its dependence on oil exports, ushering in a new era of economic diversification and opportunity, driven by investment into key strategic sectors.
Vision 2030 works on three major areas of focus: creating a vibrant society, developing a thriving economy, and ensuring an ambitious nation. To shed light on just how far-reaching the implications of implementing the strategy across the country, here is just a small sample of the many ambitions set out in the Vision 2030:
To increase the share of non-oil exports in non-oil gross domestic product (GDP) from 16% to 50%. Non-oil revenues in the Kingdom have grown from US$45 billion in 2015 to $98.3 billion in 2020; though 2020 was a contraction year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the collapse of oil prices, non-oil revenues made up 47% of the government's revenues, the highest portion in Saudi's recent history.
Have three Saudi cities recognized in the top 100 cities in the world by 2030
To increase capacity to welcome 30 million religious pilgrims by 2030 (up from 8 million pilgrims received in 2016); in 2019, Saudi welcomed over 21.66 million domestic and foreign pilgrims to Mecca)
To increase private sector contribution to GDP to 65% by 2030 (from 40% in 2016). Since 2016, the Kingdom has seen a 40% rise in the number of SMEs, and 16% growth in industrial sector investment.
To lower unemployment from 11.6% to 7% by 2030. After a few years of rising unemployment, reaching a high of 13.7% in 2020, the Kingdom has managed to lower unemployment down to 11.3% by Q3 2021.
To increase women's participation in the workforce from 22% to 30%. Saudi Arabia has already met this 2030 target by 2020-year-end, when women's employment soared to 33%, driven primarily by the private sector. By Q3 2021, the figure had risen again to 34.1%. Furthermore, 38% of all small and medium sized businesses in the Kingdom are owned and operated by women.
To increase Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund Public Investment Fund's (PIF) assets from SAR600 billion to SAR7 trillion (equivalent to nearly $1.9 trillion). By 2020-year-end, PIF had $400 billion assets under management.
To increase the ratio of individuals exercising at least one time a week to 40% by 2030 (from 13% in 2016). By 2020, >1,000 education and recreation clubs were established in the Kingdom, with more than 1.7 million residents utilizing their services.
To increase average life expectancy from 74 to 80 years.
To raise the Saudi government's ranking in the Government Effectiveness Index from 80th place to 20th place globally. In 2019, Saudi was ranked in 64th place.
To rally one million volunteers a year, up from 11,000 in 2016. 409,000 volunteers were engaged in 2020, and 84% of Saudi youth have expressed a strong desire to partake in volunteering opportunities in a poll conducted at the end of 2020.
To increase FDI from 3.8% to the international level of 5.7% GDP. Saudi Arabia has already witnessed foreign investment triple from $1.42 billion USD in 2016 to $4.7 billion in 2020.
To achieve the Vision 2030 objectives, a series of programs have been designed to translate the Vision's aims into action. These Vision Realization Programs act to bring key deliverables of the blueprint to life, in wide-ranging areas from fiscal sustainability to Saudi citizen's quality of life. Five years has passed since launching Vision 2030, and the Kingdom has delivered a wave of reforms that have transformed society, with particular benefits to women and youth, and economy– accelerating the growth of the non-oil economy. Gateway industries such as tourism, local manufacturing and smart services are generating jobs for future Saudi youth –and for the first time– opening Saudi Arabia to the world.
OPENING SAUDI ARABIA UP TO THE WORLD
One of the key strategic sectors for development mapped out in Saudi's Vision 2030 is tourism. By 2030, the Kingdom expects tourism to account for 10% of GDP (up from the current 3%), creating a new tourism economy in the Kingdom that will generate at least one million new jobs for Saudi youth.
Job creation is a critical strategic driver for the Kingdom and underpins many of the strategic objectives outlined in Vision 2030, as Saudi Arabia is a youthful population with what economists call a "youth bulge". This refers to the incoming young Saudis graduating from secondary and tertiary education that will be hungry for jobs– in a job market that needs to more than double the number of jobs available since 2016 by 2030, the number of jobs available in Saudi Arabia needs to increase even more significantly, when we consider the successful drive for Saudi to engage women in the workforce. In 2010, only 55,000 Saudi women were participating in the private sector workforce; at the end of 2021, nearly one million Saudi women were working in the private sector, and the percentage of women in the workforce is climbing steadily. In 2016, only 19% of the workforce in Saudi were women. In 2021, that number has climbed to over 34%.
There are many stakeholders responsible for stewarding the National Tourism Development Strategy in Saudi Arabia. All are working together to coordinate strategic implementation of initiatives to achieve the targets set out in Vision 2030. Coordination activities are across public and private sector entities, covering strategic direction, regulation, tourism development investment, transportation and logistics infrastructure development and management, branding and promotion, visitor experience, and many other initiatives.
Developing the tourism sector in the Kingdom directly and indirectly supports the achievement of many key strategic objectives of Vision 2030, as highlighted in the figure below. Tourism will strengthen Islamic values and national identity by promoting the Kingdom as a religious destination for over 30 million pilgrims annually, strengthen the private sector (which will be the main driver of future new job growth), attract foreign direct investment, and contribute to one million new tourism jobs, driving youth employment.
Today, Saudi Arabia's tourism economy employs just over half a million people, of which 22% are roles filled by Saudi nationals. Tourism will also, of course, contribute to government non-oil revenues, as a cornerstone of the Kingdom's economic diversification plan. Saudi Arabia aims to become one of the top global tourism destinations by 2030, welcoming over 100 million overnight visitors annually.
PUTTING MONEY WHERE THEIR MOUTH IS
As the entrepreneurial adage goes, "you must spend money, to make money," and in order for the Kingdom to increase tourism's contribution to the national GDP from 3% to 10% by 2030, the Kingdom is putting money where its mouth is. In less than a year of being established, the Saudi Tourism Development Fund stated that it had deployed $533 million on tourism projects worth a total of over $2 billion; the fund was initially established with $4 billion for investment.
Meanwhile, the PIF has announced a five-year strategy that aims to invest $40 billion each year into the domestic economy until 2025, with 1.8 million jobs expected to be created. Many, though not all, of PIF's investments are geared towards tourism development projects. In late 2021, the Minister of Tourism, H.E. Ahmed Al Khateeb, publicly announced that the Kingdom had committed to spend $1 trillion towards tourism projects over the next 10 years.
With this investment and the various tourism initiatives across the country, Saudi Arabia is looking for a return on investment that would see an increase of more than 5x on 2018 tourism spend in the Kingdom and contribute 10% to the Kingdom's GDP. In following with global tourism trends, the Kingdom expects more than half of those tourism revenues to come from leisure tourism– a tourism sector that was barely existent in the country a few short years ago.
Though Saudi Arabia is new to opening its borders to the general international public, the Kingdom's religious tourism has thrived for thousands of years. Once a year, Muslims of every ethnic group, color, social status, and culture gather in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam, and worship together. By no means is "welcoming foreigners" a new concept in Saudi. In 2019, Saudi Arabia welcomed over 21 million Muslim pilgrims inside its borders for Hajj and Umrah. Due to the prominence of these pilgrimages, the city of Mecca regularly lands itself on Mastercard's Global Destination Cities Index. In the 2019 ranking (which covers 2018 figures), Mecca was ranked as the 13th most visited city in the world, with 10 million overnight visitors, and ranked second for international visitor spend, at over $20 billion.
In September 2019, Saudi Arabia opened its doors to the world for the first time, as one of the few "final frontiers" of tourism. Prior to this, besides Muslim pilgrims, only business travelers invited by Saudi companies and organizations could gain entry to the Kingdom on a business visa. Within the first four months of accepting tourism visa applications, more than 300,000 applications were filed.
Unfortunately, shortly after the "grand opening," the newly opened borders were then subsequently closed in 2020, along with most of the borders around the world, due to the Covid19 Pandemic that affected mobility globally. Despite this, the Saudi Tourism Authority says that Saudi Arabia was able to garner 5% of its tourism revenue from the leisure tourism sector in 2019. In fact, Saudi Arabia's Tourism Minister told Bloomberg TV in an October 2021 interview that the country was on track to have tourism contribute to 4% of its GDP that year.
Related: Driving Economies: Breaking Down The Significance Of The Global Tourism Industry
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The head of a Saudi royal commission has been arrested on corruption charges
The CEO overseeing Saudi Arabia’s royal commission for its historic al-Ula site has been arrested on corruption and money-laundering charges over some $55 million in contracts
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- The CEO overseeing Saudi Arabia 's royal commission for its historic al-Ula site has been arrested on corruption and money-laundering charges over some $55 million in contracts, officials said.
The charges target Amr bin Saleh Abdulrahman al-Madani in part over “illegally obtaining” contracts to benefit a private company he had interests in through a relative before joining the government, the kingdom's Oversight and Anti-Corruption Authority said in a statement late Sunday. The contracts relate to the Kingdom Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy, the statement said.
It said Al-Madani also recommended that private company for additional contracts through his work on the commission for al-Ula, an ancient desert city that's been one focus of Saudi Arabia's push for tourists.
It was not clear if al-Madani had a lawyer. The statement of the charges also were carried by the state-run Saudi Press Agency.
Saudi Arabia under King Salman and his assertive son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, conducted a wide-ranging sweep of arrests after taking power over alleged corruption charges in 2017 that saw princes and other powerful members of its business community locked up in the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the capital, Riyadh. That netted the government around $106.6 billion and secured Prince Mohammed's power base.
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Lionel Messi Returns to Promote Saudi Arabia and Break ‘Outdated Stereotypes’
Peden Doma Bhutia , Skift
January 27th, 2024 at 10:41 AM EST
Recognizing the need for a significant image overhaul, Saudi Arabia understands that reshaping perceptions is crucial for it to achieve its ambitious tourism goals by 2030.
Peden Doma Bhutia
Lionel Messi is back promoting Saudi Arabia in a campaign that says it wants to dismantle “walls” of “misconception” and break “outdated stereotypes.”
It’s called “Go Beyond What You Think” and gets at the transformative power of travel.
Last year in May, Messi shared photos from his trip to Diriyah in Saudi Arabia , fulfilling contractual obligations tied to his partnership with the country’s tourism authority. A report in the New York Times said the deal could earn him $25 million over three years.
Saudi’s New Tourism Campaign
As part of the “Saudi, Welcome to Arabia” brand, the campaign is set to launch across key markets in Europe, India, and China over a three-month period. It spans television, social media, and digital platforms.
The campaign is “anchored on consumer insights, which revealed there are still common misconceptions about the destination, and invites audiences to experience the incredible and vibrant cultural transformation taking place across Saudi,” according to a press release from the tourism board.
Messi, in a paid partnership with Visit Saudi, shared the campaign video on his Instagram account. He encourages those who have visited Saudi Arabia to share their experience and others to explore the country.
This initiative, part of Saudi Tourism’s ongoing efforts to broaden perspectives and foster cultural understanding through tourism, aligns with the “Tourism Opens Minds” initiative under the recently-renamed UN Tourism .
What Does Messi’s Video Feature?
The video showcases Saudi’s landscapes, including the Red Sea, Aseer’s green mountains, Tabuk’s snow-covered terrain, Jeddah’s coastal city, and the capital, Riyadh.
It highlights attractions like the Diriyah E-Prix, Riyadh Season’s theme park, AlUla’s hot air balloon flights, and MDL Beast music events. Messi celebrates the Saudi Women’s National football team, motorsport athlete Dania Akeel, DJ Cosmicat, and Rayyanah Barnawi, the first Saudi woman in space.
View this post on Instagram A post shared by Leo Messi (@leomessi)
The campaign is launching ahead of Messi’s return to Saudi to play two matches with his current football club, Inter Miami, against Al Hilal on January 29 and Al Nassr on February 1.
Saudi’s Tourism Pivot
As part of its vision of transforming into a tourism and leisure powerhouse by 2030 , Saudi Arabia plans to attract 150 million tourists every year with tourism contributing 10% of the Saudi economy.
Substantial investments, amounting to hundreds of billions of dollars, are allocated to the development of “giga-projects” in deserts, mountains, and waterfronts, all slated to be unveiled within the next seven years or sooner.
The country has also eased entry norms, having developed the eVisa program that now includes 63 countries and special administrative regions, as well as the GCC residents visa. There’s also a free 96-hour stopover visa, which entitles visitors to a complimentary one-night hotel stay during the stopover when booking with the national carrier, SAUDIA. Travelers can use the stopover visa to explore Saudi and perform Umrah.
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Tags: advertising campaign , asia monthly , saudi arabia , Saudi Vision 2030 , saudia airlines , Saudia Arabia , unwto , visa
Photo credit: Lionel Messi and his wife, Antonella Roccuzzo, in Diriyah. Saudi Tourism Authority