Operations Director Marc visited Saudi Arabia in 2020 and here answers some frequently asked questions about visiting the kingdom.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in January 2020, just a few months after the Government introduced for the first time tourist e-visas as part of a radical plan known as Vision 2030 which aims to diversify the country away from its over-dependence on oil revenues.
Before this trip, travel to the KSA had been restricted to those with work permits or those travelling for religious pilgrimage to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina (known as Umrah or Hajj, depending on when the pilgrimage is undertaken)
Despite working with some of the best travelled people in the industry, I knew nobody who’d actually travelled to KSA, making the experience even more special than I’d expected. On my return, I was bombarded with a list of questions from colleagues, friends and family regarding what travel in KSA was really like. This is what I told them.
Q: Is it difficult to get a visa?
A: Absolutely not. It’s an e-visa that costs about $120 and mine came through in less than 24hrs.
Q: Did you meet any Saudi women?
A: Yes! To name but a few…in the Red Sea I went snorkelling with Mariam Shalan, one of the country’s top free-divers and had lunch with her and her mother Reem Bakheet, a diving instructor. In a coffee shop outside Riyadh’s Masmak Fortress, I met Njood Fahad a well-known Saudi traveller and Instagrammer. In Jeddah’s UNESCO Old Town my guide was Abir Abu Sulayman, the first Saudi woman to be granted a guiding licence. And when travelling to the Edge of The World, my jeep driver was Mona, a married women with university age children, one of whom – her daughter - was studying at Brown University in Rhode Island.
Q: Can foreign women travel to Saudi Arabia by themselves?
A: Yes. This was not always the case. In the past, foreign women under the age of 40 were only allowed to travel to KSA if they were accompanied by a brother, husband or father. There are now no such restrictions.
Q: Are there strict dress codes for men and women?
A: KSA is still a conservative country and you’d be unlikely to see people walking along Jeddah’s Corniche in shorts and strappy tops. However there are no requirements for women to wear headscarves or shapeless clothing (as there is, for example, in Iran). Most Saudi women will still wear some form of headscarf but there is no longer any legal requirement for them to do so.
Q: Are Saudi people friendly?
A: From my experience, very much so. You might not be as immediately fascinating to the locals as you might be in other parts of the world but this is mainly because Saudis are often very well-travelled and they are accustomed to seeing foreigners in their country for work or for religious visits. Saudis are also very family orientated - and restaurants often have numerous enclosed dining areas for privacy - but in the souks of Jeddah and as you travel around the country, you’ll find a very warm and healthy curiosity from the locals people who for the most part seem to be welcoming with open arms the liberalising reforms that are now making trips such as mine possible.
Q: Can you take alcohol into the country or access it while there?
A: No. Not yet at any rate. Certain ex-pats living on compounds will tell you that there are many to access alcohol as long-term residents but not for short-term visitors; this will be a dry experience. There is talk of allowing certain hotels to sell alcohol to foreign visitors in the future…but the country is not there just yet.
Q: Did you read any books on the country to prepare you for your visit?
A: Yes I read On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lies – And Future – by Karen Elliott House. It opened my eyes to the far greater complexity of the country than I’d previously considered.
Q: Did it meet your expectations?
A: It far exceeded them. I’d been to Jordan before and had loved Petra and Wadi Rum, but Al Ula surpassed both of these experiences for me. The country was also much more scenically diverse than I’d realised. There is obviously desert (in fact, some of the most spectacular desert I’ve ever seen) but in addition there are 3000m+ mountains as well as a relatively untouched and stunning coastline along the Red Sea. It’s also culturally very diverse with people in the south sharing much more in common with their Yemeni neighbours than with many of those in the capital, Riyadh.