Saudi Arabia is probably up there with Blackpool on your bucket list (very different vibes, Roy Chubby Brown certainly not welcome in the latter) but maybe it shouldn’t be? The notoriously closed Kingdom recently announced that it’s opening up to tourists, offering tourist visas for the first time in decades and it’s looking like an interesting choice for travellers.
It’s been a tricky few years for Saudi Arabia. The de facto ruler, Mohammed Bin Salman (known as MBS, though he’s no JFK), has declared he’s keen to modernise and reform a country bound to a religious system that, until this year, banned women from driving. On the other hand, he’s widely acknowledged to be responsible for the bloody assassination of journalist Jamal Kashoggi and is waging a brutal war in Yemen that’s responsible for a myriad human rights abuses.
So why should we consider a despotic desert nation as an ideal holiday destination? Well, obviously this is no Zante, but there is a wealth of culture to experience, Saudi Arabia is the cradle of Islam, it’s key to the global economy and truly fascinating. But one might also make a case for being part of an effort to liberalise attitudes in this incredibly conservative state.
In a bid to be more tourist-friendly, the kingdom has set new rules allowing unmarried Western (presumably heterosexual) couples to share rooms, for example, in the wider country MBS has started a programme of liberalisation, especially toward women, and such reforms are certainly dependent on being more Western-friendly. As this oil rich nation looks to a world that doesn’t have a future centred on oil, Saudi Arabia needs to open up to tourists and tourism as a vital industry. In return the West could do worse than to cautiously embrace this.
So what is there to see?
Scuba Dive In The Red Sea
Wait, where did the desert go? There’s way more to Saudi Arabia than sand… there’s sandy beaches too. The Red Sea coast is rich in stunning scenery, and also forms an important part of the government’s tourism plans. The scuba diving is reported to be some of the best in the world, with clear seas and famous sites like Allah’s Reed and Boiler Wreck noted for their diving.
The government has grand plans for the Red Sea coast. The Saudi Kingdom Public Investment Fund recently announced they intend a new luxury development, called the Amaala Project. A personal project of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, expect Maldives-style luxury island resorts.
Discover The Lost City of Mada'in Saleh
Dating back to the Nabatean Kingdom in first century AD, the so-called Lost City of Mada’in Saleh was the kingdom’s southernmost settlement after Petra. Except Petra style incredible cave-come-grandiose architecture that will fascinate and enthral. The whole thing is yet to be completely discovered, but what’s been found so far includes a vast necropolis inducing over 131 incredible tombs, each carved with Nabatean artistry.
Around 700 miles from Riyadh, the site is clearly something special, but without the immense crowds that flock to Petra, it’s also something a little more unique.
Uncover The Empty Quarter
The epithet ‘the empty quarter’ isn’t quite right on a couple of points. Firstly it’s not a quarter, but in fact encompasses over a third of the entire Arabian Peninsula (it also holds the record for being the largest contiguous sand desert in the world). But it’s also not quite empty either. Aside from the caravans of camels, the quarter includes incredible oasises and ancient walled towns.
As Saudi Arabia ramps up its tourism, plans are afoot to run glamping expeditions within the quarter, combining high-end luxury travel with a glimpse of the real face of Arabia.
Climb The Asir Mountains
The stunning Asir mountain range runs parallel to the Red Sea, butting up against Yemen, and are surprisingly lush and verdant. Abounding in steeply terraced mountainsides, the region grows wheat, coffee, cotton, indigo, ginger, vegetables and palms, but also makes a fascinating visit for its hilltop villages and incredible scenery.
Until relatively recently, Jeddah was the capital of Saudi Arabia and remains a significant cultural hub. Set on the Red Sea, the city is a melting pot of all the nations in the region and this is played out throughout the city’s vibrant culture. As the main gateway to both Mecca and Medina, it’s a hub for the millions who pass through on their pilgrimages to the holy cities.
Noted for its famous “Coral Houses” built out of blocks of coral harvested from the sea in past times in the older quarters, the city also boasts five star hotels and glamour of the new Saudi too.
Mecca and Medina
If you’re not a Muslim then the sacred sites of Medina and Mecca are strictly off-limits. But, if you’re lucky enough to be able to visit (indeed, it’s one of the pillars of Islam that if you are financially able to then you must pilgrimage to Mecca at least once) then these are awe inspiring sites of immense religious significance.
Mecca was the birthplace of Muhammad, while a cave a couple miles from Mecca was the site of Muhammad’s first revelation of the Quran. Later, Medina was Muhammad’s destination of his Hijrah (or migration) from Mecca.
Incredible architecture, sacred significance and the world’s largest hotel (under construction) are all reasons to visit, if you’re a Muslim.