It’s controversial for some and shrouded in mystery for others, but now, Saudi Arabia is seeking a new calling as an international holiday destination. The kingdom has long been one of the hardest countries to visit – visas are generally reserved for pilgrims and business people – but authorities have now announced a new visa program for 49 countries.
Part of the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s longstanding Vision 2030, a sweeping initiative intended to reduce the state’s dependence on oil, the moves aims to increase tourism from three to 10 percent of Saudi GDP. Other projects include the futuristic Neom mega-city (complete with holographic teachers and artificial rain) and an “entertainment city” called Qiddiya that is set to include vast safari areas and high-end roller coasters. But traveling to Saudi Arabia will be both difficult and rewarding – here’s why.
How Do You Get the New Visa?
A dedicated portal has been set up for tourist visas, with citizens from the likes of USA, Canada, China, Singapore, and Australia as well as 38 European countries eligible to apply. The e-visa will be a one-year, multiple-entry visa, allowing tourists to spend up to 90 days in Saudi Arabia.
“Visitors will be surprised by the treasures we have to share,” said Tourism Minister Ahmed al-Khateeb in a statement. He cited “five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a vibrant local culture, and breathtaking natural beauty” as examples.
Are There Laws and Customs You Should Know About?
A few, yes. While Saudi Arabia is still considered one of the world’s most conservative countries, women are now allowed to drive and attend football matches – but they must still wear an abaya and are segregated in many public spaces. Men shouldn’t wear shorts in public.
It is illegal to practice non-Islamic faiths in public (though a single Bible may be imported for personal use), it is illegal to import pork products of any kind, and it is illegal to import, purchase, or consume alcohol. Dual citizenship is forbidden, so if you enter the country with two passports, one will be confiscated. Extra-marital sexual relations, homosexuality, and transgenderism are all outlawed, and visitors should be extremely cautious during Ramadan, when eating in public before sunset is banned. Non-Muslims are also barred from the holy cities of Makkah and Medina.
What Should Women Know?
Though foreign nationals should be aware of these restrictions, not all will apply to tourists. According al-Khateeb, abayas will not be mandatory for female tourists, but modest dress would be – including at public beaches.
What Are the Main Sights?
Despite the legislation, there’s no doubting Saudi Arabia’s status as a treasure trove of ancient civilization. Most #instaworthy is Mada’in Saleh, a collection of 94 ancient monolithic tombs carved straight out of the rock, often compared favorably with the monumental city of Petra in neighboring Jordan.
Consider the mysterious pictograms that predate the pyramids in the city of Jubbah or the dilapidated ‘tower houses’ that punctuate the Old City of Jeddah. It’s not a fabulous place for nightlife, but Saudi cuisine – chicken shawarma, pistachio-filled shortbreads, and a chicken and rice dish known as kapsa – is actually superb. How’s that for starters?