Finally, Saudi Arabia Is Open To Tourists. But Is It Really Worth The Hype?
I can’t believe it.
I, am actually vacationing in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).
Since forever, the only people permitted to enter this unknown desert “Kingdom” have been business travelers, Muslims on their pilgrimage, visitors attending the odd event, and domestic workers that the rich Saudi’s hired in to do the jobs they don’t want to do.
This country is the last frontier. It is without doubt, the worlds least explored country by "tourists" (simply because they have never been opened to tourists till now).
And I’m here. I’m a tourist in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
[Screw Tourism Approach]
Oil rich KSA has never bothered themselves with tourism revenue. But in the face of dwindling oil reserves, they’ve decided it’s now time to diversify their economic portfolio away from oil.
So now, they want your money; and your next vacation.
[They Want Your Next Vacation]
Since end September 2019, KSA has launched a mega tourism campaign, issuing tourist visas to citizens of 49 countries, hiring "influencers" all over the world to change their “poor human rights” image in the West. I say the “West” because most of us, or most people you know, can’t care less about what is going on in Saudi Arabia.
We apparently have too many things on our plate to worry about such things. Don’t believe me? Ask your colleague at work what Saudi Arabia is known for. They’ll tell you it’s “oil, sand, and terrorists”.
So KSA hopes to “diversify” and move away from their total dependency on oil approach. Tourists are more than welcomed, you’ll see your respective country’s news outlets constantly bombard you with KSA advertisement campaigns, and the country will have luxury hotels and resorts sprouting up like mushrooms at every significant tourist attraction.
But to their credit, this desert “Kingdom” does have a whole lot up its sleeve. In fact, it’s been hiding its many treasures since the beginning of time; up till September 2019 that is.
[Why Bother Vacationing In Saudi Arabia?]
("Lonely Castle", the Tombs of Madain Salih)
So what exactly is there to see in Saudi Arabia? It’s far from a budget destination, as you’d expect from a country overrun with rich oil sheikhs.
There’s no alcohol, no nightlife, and even if there were, I bet you wouldn’t dare to go wild. Last I heard, the punishment for stealing was amputation of your hands. Want to guess what other punishments await you when you do what you’d normally enjoy back in your own country?
(Al Ula heritage region)
I visited Saudi Arabia in December 2019 with a couple of friends. Everything in, including visa, air tickets, hotels, food, tours, car rentals; everything. We spent S$2,700 for a total of 8 days. Surprisingly, it wasn’t that expensive after all. And no hostels in Saudi Arabia either.
[Here’s Why You’ll Give Them Your Money]
With just 8 days, there was no way I could savour all the delights the desert “Kingdom” had to offer. But I did what I could, and got to visit a good many of their key attractions. And no wonder KSA has been hiding its treasure chest of attractions from the rest of the world for centuries. They are impressive. Let’s take a look.
1. The Tombs of Madain Salih & Ul Ula Region
Saudi Arabia’s answer to Jordan’s Petra, one of the 7 Wonders of the World. As far as archaeological sites go, this is KSA's biggest attraction.
2. Historic Jeddah
It reminded me a little of Morocco’s Chefchaouen and Tunisia’s Sidi Bou Said.
A “old town” with an ambiance that just hits you the minute you step in. Visit after 5pm, nothing is open before that.
In the picture above are the "coral houses" of Jeddah's historic district known as "Al Balad". They are made from blocks of coral, easily available from the sea. Today, the wooden balconies are rotting, and the historic district is falling apart.
3. Magnificent Mosques
They don’t compare to Muscat’s Sultan Qaboos Mosque or Istanbul’s Blue Mosque in terms of architectural grandeur or “feel”, but they are no slouch and impressive in their own way.
4. The Edge of The World
This is a real winner. I felt like I was truly at the edge of the world. The most “post-apocalyptic” feel ever, only rivaled perhaps by Ukraine’s Chernobyl. Step aside Grand Canyon, the “Edge” takes the cake.
5. The Holy Cities
Image Credit: Agoda.com
Only Muslim’s are allowed entry, while I couldn’t visit, I couldn’t not mention this.
From pictures, it looks more impressive than the Vatican. And yes, it’s a legit attraction if you’re a Muslim on your pilgrimage. For the rest of us, we’ll stick to pictures. Please don’t try your luck getting in. You might not get caught, but if you do, you won’t even be able to send a postcard home.
6. Kingdom Riyadh
Saudi Arabia’s capital. Like Dubai, they have some pretty cool buildings.
7. The Red Sea & Georgios G Shipwreck
Image Credit: Wikiloc
We didn’t have enough time to visit the shipwreck or dive in the blue waters of the “Red Sea”. But if you’ve more time than we did, you should visit the “Maldives” of Saudi Arabia.
8. The “Real” Mount Sinai
Image Credit: Islamitics
If you've read your Bible, you’ll know from the book of Exodus, that Moses struck a rock and water came out from it.
The Egyptians will have you believe it happened at Mount Sinai (their country) so they can continue to churn tourist dollars out of you. But the “rock that was struck” was actually at Mount Horeb, which is in Saudi Arabia. So for Christian's, this is a pretty cool site.
9. Red Sand Dunes
Beautiful red color especially in the sunset.
Perfect for picnics, quad biking, and dune bashing. Pity it's covered in rubbish.
10. Al Wahba Volcanic Crater
We had to drive for 5 hours to get here from Jeddah.
But when we arrived, it was all worth it.
Then, we had to drive 5 hours back.
[The Harsh Reality]
(Al Ula heritage region)
For all their wonders, the KSA is, and likely, will always be a polarizing travel destination for many.
It’s hard to get behind visiting a country with a terrible human rights record like jailing political opponents and activists, forced downloading of propaganda from the state controlled media machine, frequent back tracking on promises like not raising taxes, withholding their citizens money....
oops; wrong country.
That was some other Asian country, not the KSA. Let me try again.
It’s hard to get behind visiting a country with a terrible human rights record like imprisoning and torturing women’s rights activists, journalists (Jamal Kashoggi the most recent), carries out public executions (no kidding, in the 21st century yes), and only recently, finally allowing women to drive.
(Al Rahma Floating Mosque, Jeddah)
Gender segregation is prevalent all over the country.
Even at fast food restaurants like McDonalds or Al Baik (a KSR fast food restaurant like KFC), there different sections for men and women.
While we were an all guys group, it made me wonder, had I been traveling with “The Girl”, and assuming we weren’t married, would we have been forced to eat apart from each other? Would we have gotten weird looks if we were holding hands? Would we even be allowed to sleep in the same room without our marriage certificate? (which we always bring a photocopy of when we travel to the Middle East)
[No Car, No Vacation]
(Petrol costs just S$0.55 a litre, and car rental's cost as low as S$45 a car per day!)
In KSR as well as the rest of the Middle East, knowing your “social standing” is actually a thing. Public buses are the mode of transport by poorer migrant workers shipped in by the rich Saudis/Kuwaitis/etc to the jobs they don’t want to do.
I’ve visited at least 8 countries in the region dubbed as “The Middle East”, and I’ve never come across a rich sheikh choosing a bus or taxi over a ride in their luxury fuel guzzlers. In short, if you’re a budget traveller/backpacker/tourist without a driving license, you're pretty screwed.
No tourist buses that stop right outside the attraction you saw on Tripadvisor. Zero. You’ll be paying for Taxi’s just to get from the hotel to the convenience shop. Yes, the KSR is a HUGE country.
[Sleep Like A King]
There are no “real backpacker hostels” in KSR, at least not when I was there in 2019. Oil money doesn’t allow for “poverty travel”.
Because Saudi's are used to huge rooms and decent standards, we got to enjoy staying at proper hotels at hostel prices. By that, I meant we paid S$25 per person per night to stay at a proper hotel!
[Crazy Drivers/Crazy Traffic Rules]
(Snapshot of our traffic fines. "Budget Car Rental" charged us directly without giving us the chance to appeal)
Guess what’s worse than Bangkok’s traffic jams, Vietnam’s crazy drivers, and Singapore’s expensive ERP charges?
Ans: Rich Saudis who think they own the road, and obviously cant read road signs or keep lane discipline.
In my 96 countries to date, I’ve never come across worse drivers that I did in Saudi Arabia. They drive AGAINST traffic on major roads, they go straight on left turning only lanes, and the irony is, they have more speed cameras than any country I’ve visited.
We got fined for 6,900 SAR (the equivalent of S$2,400 Singapore dollars) for driving along ONE stretch of road at 140kph. Alright, we deserved it for speeding, but what speed would you be driving at along an empty road in the desert? 80kph? Really?
There were 10 cameras on a what was probably a 20km stretch of road. If you look at the screenshot above, were issued a fine every few minutes!
I love Middle Eastern as well as Indian cuisine, and if you’re visiting KSR, I hope you do too. Because if you don’t, I think you’re gonna be hungry.
Sure, there are loads of fast food restaurants, and even famous burger chains like “Shake Shack” without the queues; but if you’re a picky eater, I’d say your best bet is a food court at the mall.
But because we didn’t want to eat “fake Chinese food” at the food court, we were forced to rotate between burgers, fried chicken (Al Baik), and Indian food (which we chose most of the time). By the 4th day, I was dreaming of having a proper meal that didn’t involve curry, burgers, or anything fried.
Yes folks, zero.
No Clubs, no beers (yes there are fake 0% alcohol beers), no tinder dates, nothing.
Well, maybe smoke a “shisha” (also known as hookah) at a cafe to pass the evenings and nights away. That’s as good as it gets.
(Enjoying tea with the locals in the Hejaz mountains, in between Mecca and Ta'if)
I found Paris dirty, and while many might disagree, it is my opinion that Paris was (to me at least), somewhat reminiscent of a renovated bin center with frills.
And this might seem a little harsh, but many attractions in Saudi Arabia, in comparison (to Paris), I would deem as a proper garbage dump. There was (and probably still is) litter EVERYWHERE.
You don’t see rubbish in the pictures “influencers” post when they visit Saudi. The “Travel Expert” who sold you your vacation package to KSA had never been to KSA, they couldn’t tell you what the truth was; but I can, and I will.
The streets are covered with litter, the swimming holes are abandoned with empty bottles floating in them. Heck, even the mountains are covered in litter.
(apparently, i'm not the only one who thinks rubbish is a real issue in KSA)
I dare say I’ve visited more deserts than most people can name, but when I visited the “Red Sand Dunes” in KSA, for the first time, I practically had to shovel sand to cover litter before I took a picture, that’s how bad it was.
If you look at the picture above, look closely at what we were surrounded by during our “picnic” in the mountains.
Yes, you see that? That’s just in one picture in this post, but that’s all over the attractions in the KSA. And please, don’t show me a nicely taken picture of an attraction or street in KSA with a caption “where’s the rubbish”. I know what I saw.
[Laws Are NOT Meant To Be Broken]
(sunset from the Hejaz mountains)
Even though you might be a tourist, the strict laws of KSA do apply to you. While we didn't find out they weren’t entirely strict in enforcing them, I’d suggest not trying to bend the rules in this country. If you do, a hefty fine and a Saudi jail cell await you.
1. Don’t be affectionate in public -
Even if you really are a married, and especially if you’re an LGBT. The punishment is canning, jail, and even death. Keep your antics to your hotel room instead of the park and you’ll be alright.
2. Carry your passport at all times -
You never know when you’ll be stopped, and god help you if the police or military pull you over and you have no identification on you.
3. No taking pictures of government and military installations -
We found this out the hard way. For some reason, silly me decided I wanted a picture with a Saudi cannon (see picture above)
The soldiers practically drove up to us, blocked our car, confiscated our passports and made us delete our pictures before allowing us to leave. The next time, they said, would be a jail term. It was only after the soldiers left, that I realized the photos I deleted ended up in my “recently deleted” folder.
4. No Shorts -
Oh, and guys, I know in some of my pictures I was seen wearing shorts. Now, it depends which part of the country you’re at. Jeddah is more relaxed, and I wasn’t the only one in shorts. In Riyadh, you’ll be fined the equivalent of S$250. Still, just stick to jeans, I wore shorts on my first couple of days. When I realized my mistake, I switched to jeans for the rest of the trip.
5. Criticizing the government in public or on social media is illegal -
The penalty? Public canning, a possible jail term, and yes, you’ll be deported.
6. Female tourists aren’t required to wear an abaya or hijab like the locals -
Nonetheless, respect the customs and wear a headscarf if your entering a mosque. Also, I’d suggest wearing jeans or at least minimally, no skirts or spaghetti tops in the KSA.
7. No alcohol, drugs, pornography (in your phone), or pork -
These are strictly forbidden. The locals know that, and while you are a tourist, I don’t think you want to be the first to find out the penalty for having any of them in KSA.
(The Edge of the World viewpoint)
In short, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an interesting place to visit, and I would most certainly recommend it as a vacation destination. Its attractions are certainly breath-taking, and some of them, like the Edge of the World and Al Wahba Crater are up there with the very best I’ve ever seen. I was truly impressed, and in awe of the wonders of the KSA’s treasure chest.
BUT, and it’s a big but; they are not ready.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are not ready for tourists on a MASSIVE scale, not even close.
(The tombs of Madain Salih)
Until the infrastructure of the country is developed to become more tourist friendly (proper transportation), they become more relaxed on their rules (similar to the way Dubai is), and a massive litter picking exercise is carried out, the country is not ready to welcome tourists on the huge scale that they want it to be. No matter how massive the budget for their tourism campaign is, or how impressive their attractions are, Saudi Arabia is not yet ready.
For an equally impressive, more inclusive, and certainly way cleaner “Middle East” vacation destination, skip Saudi Arabia, and just head across to neighboring Oman to experience a “Middle East” country that will truly sweep you off your feet.