It’s best known for oil refineries, controversial arms deals, and a less-than-stellar record on human rights, but now Saudi Arabia is seeking a new calling as an international holiday destination.
The kingdom has long been one of the world’s hardest-to-visit countries – with visas generally reserved for pilgrims and business people – but authorities have now announced a new visa programme for 49 foreign 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 3% to 10% of Saudi GDP.
Other projects include the futuristic Neom – a planned, $500 billion mega-city with holographic teachers and artificial rain, which will apparently be 33 times the size of New York – and an ‘entertainment city’ called Qiddiya, set to include vast safari areas and high-end roller coasters.
Here’s everything you need to you about the new system, and why travelling in Saudi Arabia could be both difficult and rewarding…
How do you get the new visa?
It’s yet to be announced exactly which countries will be eligible for the visa, but it’s thought to include countries from all over the world, with a particular emphasis on Europe. Further details of the scheme, including application process, will be revealed by authorities later.
“Visitors will be surprised by the treasures we have to share,” Tourism Minister Ahmed al-Khateeb says in a statement, “five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty,”
Are there laws and customs you should know about?
Yes, so, so many.
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has made headlines for his so-called ‘liberalising agenda’ in recent times, but the desert state is still considered one of the most conservative on Earth. Women are now allowed to drive and attend football matches, but they must still wear the abaya (a long cloak), and are segregated in many public spaces. Men shouldn’t wear shorts in public.
It is illegal to practise 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 very illegal to import, purchase, or consume alcohol. Dual citizenship is forbidden, and if you enter the country with two passports, one will be confiscated, says the UK government’s travel advice.
Extra-marital sexual relations, homosexuality, and transgenderism are all outlawed, while visitors should be extremely cautious during Ramadam when even eating outside is banned. Non-Muslims are also barred from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
Though foreign nationals should be aware of these restrictions, not all will apply to tourists. Female travellers will be allowed to enter the country and al-Khateeb told Reuters that abayas will not be mandatory for female tourists but modest dress would be – including at public beaches.
Saudi law and culture can be notoriously confusing for tourists, so it’s important to read the Foreign Office advice in full before you travel.
What are the main sights?
If you can see past the draconian legislation, there’s no doubting Saudi Arabia’s status as a treasure trove of ancient civilisation. The screensaver attraction is Madain Saleh (a.k.a Al-Hijr), a collection of 94 ancient monolithic tombs carved straight out of the rock, often compared favourably with the monumental city of Petra in neighbouring Jordan.
Consider the sophisticated rock carvings at Jubbah – mysterious pictograms that predate the pyramids – or the 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 said to be superb.
- Press Association