Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to open its doors to international tourism has created quite some excitement throughout the travel industry. A vast and until now largely closed country is now there to be experienced.
This is all part of the kingdom’s push for economic reform in order to decrease its dependence on oil.
The kingdom has pledged to relax its strict dress codes for female visitors and to allow women to travel to the country unaccompanied. But, women will still need to dress modestly in public, and non-Muslims will still be forbidden from visiting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
- Visas can be obtained online for nationals of 49 countries.
- Women are only required to dress “modestly” and do not have to be veiled
- Unmarried couples can now share hotel rooms, breaking a longstanding taboo in this religiously conservative Islamic society
So what can Saudi’s new tourists expect to see?
Al Wahbah volcanic crater
In the middle of the desert, some 250 km (155 miles) away from the city of Taif, is Al Wahbah – a large volcanic crater with a salt field in its centre. Al Wahbah has become popular with hikers in recent years, although it is a challenge. As the crater is 820 ft. deep, it takes competent hikers about two to three hours to get down to the bottom and back up again. For those hoping for something a bit less active, it is also a popular camping spot.
The ancient city of Mada’in Saleh
Mada’in Saleh was the second largest city of the Nabateans, a group of people who settled across ancient Arabia and the Jordan Valley until their empire was annexed by the Romans in 106 CE.
Now, among the ruins are a vast necropolis with 130 tombs, small pre-Islamic altars, and some adobe houses – structures made from earth – in what used to be the city’s living quarters. Mada’in Saleh was designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008 – the first site in Saudi Arabia to get this accolade.
Historic Jeddah and the Gate to Mecca
Another Unesco World Heritage Site is the Gate to Mecca, located in Historic Jeddah. In the 7th Century CE, Jeddah was established as both a major port for Indian Ocean trade routes and the entry point for Muslim pilgrims who arrived by sea on their way to the religious city of Mecca.
Masmak Fortress in Riyadh
Masmak Fortress in the Saudi capital Riyadh was first built in about 1865 – but it is most well known for what happened 37 years later. In 1902, the exiled royal, Abdulaziz bin
Abdul Rahman bin Faisal Al Saud, returned to his ancestral hometown Riyadh and seized this fortress. Based at Masmak, he went on to conquer the different kingdoms of the region, before eventually uniting them to form what is now the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
King Fahd’s Fountain
King Fahd’s Fountain in Jeddah is said to be the tallest fountain in the world. Conservative estimates say the fountain, which was donated to the city by the late King Fahd, can shoot salt water up to 853 ft (260 metres) high – although some estimates put this closer to 1,000 ft. At night, it is lit up by more than 500 spotlights.
Umluj – aka the Saudi Maldives
The sandy beaches of Umluj – often referred to as the Saudi Maldives – are on the country’s Red Sea coast. From the beach, you can see mountains and inactive volcanoes, while there are mango farms nearby.
Neolithic art of Jubbah and Shuwaymis
According to Unesco, there was once a lake near these rock formations, which made it an important gathering spot for humans and animals. While here our Neolithic ancestors left their mark, in the form of these drawings on the rock faces of Jubbah and Shuwaymis.