I’ve just got back from a week in what was, until now, one of the most reclusive countries in the world. Saudi Arabia has just introduced tourist visas for the first time ever, and we were there to cover it. We spent a week out traversing the country, seeing what it had to offer, and enjoying its World Heritage Sites, completely devoid of people.
But the thing people have asked me since isn’t about the Nabatean tombs of Madain Saleh or the best scuba diving in some of the most untouched reefs in the world – it’s about how I felt being there as a woman. And as a woman seemingly supporting the Saudi government, the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, and the ill-treatment of Saudi women.
This is a complicated question for me with no easy answer. So I’ve tried to break it down into manageable chunks here:
Can you travel to Saudi Arabia as an unaccompanied woman?
This answer to this question seems to be a bit murky, but the short answer seems to be: yes. And even if you are unmarried but travelling with a male companion, you can now share a hotel room with him.
Is it safe/ comfortable to travel to Saudi as a woman?
This one is slightly more tricky to answer. During my time there, I wore an abaya the entire time – even to and from the hotel gym. In that respect, I felt fine and didn’t draw any more attention or sideways glances than I would in say, Thailand, but another friend in the country in the same time, who dared to go out in a short sleeved shirt and jeans, believed she may have been a bit before her time.
Saudi’s rules around men-women relationships, guardianship and inequality are well-documented, so you don’t need me to bang on about how archaic they are, but it is clear there is a LONG way to go before the two genders are truly equal in the kingdom.
But at the same time, there does seem to be one rule for tourists and another for locals. No comment around whether that is just or not, but it seems Saudi is still figuring this stuff out.
Do women have to wear an abaya?
Again, the short answer is no – at least that is the line the tourism authorities have taken and are sticking to. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said last year abayas were not compulsory for even Saudi women, and that seems to be a nuance the tourism ministry wants to make very clear as female tourists set their sights on Saudi.
However, you absolutely need to ensure you’re respecting local culture by covering up – but it’s the same you would do in other Muslim, or foreign, countries. Cover your shoulders and wear a long skirt or trousers that aren’t tight, and if in doubt, an open abaya is fine too.
Do women need to cover their hair or face?
No. Nothing is required to be worn over your head.
What is there to do in Saudi Arabia?
Well it depends. The forested areas of places like Jazan are perfect for those who want to experience a bit of green, and there are higher areas where it snows even, but we mainly focused our times in the areas of Al Ula and Tabuk.
Al Ula is phenomenal – a desert region with great, rocky monoliths and ancient Nabatean tombs reminiscent of Petra in Jordan, where you can stay in luxury desert camps at night and stare up at some of the most unpolluted view of the stars in the world.
Tabuk is not quite as interesting, but is the gateway to the Red Sea and a jumping off point for some of the best diving in the world. Riyadh is worth a miss, but Jeddah and its Old Town have the kind of charm that will make you stay, and want to explore for days.
What are the Saudi people like?
They are some of the most welcoming, kind people we’ve had the pleasure of meeting. We had our reservations about visiting, considering the country had been cut off from mass tourism for so long, and weren’t sure if the people would be receptive to it – but at first glance, it seems they absolutely are.
Saudi people will welcome you to their country verbally at every turn, will hand you free food to try as you wander through a market, and genuinely want you to enjoy their country.
How do you get into the tourism sites?
This is another tricky question, because that doesn’t actually seem to have become clear yet. Madain Saleh, in Al Ula, is closed for nine months out of the year unless you have special permission to enter, and only opens for the Winter at Tantora festival.
When asked, the chief executive of the heritage committee here said they were working on ticketing booths and capacity numbers, but so far that hadn’t been set out. So for the time being, you’ll have to go with a recognised tour company and have them sort out the logistics for you.
Do you have to travel Saudi with a tour company?
For the likes of Jeddah and Riyadh, no, but for the rest of Saudi, it would be advised to do so for the time being.
What’s the price of the Saudi tourism visa?
A hefty 440 rial.
Can you go to Saudi as a backpacker or a budget traveller?
Following from the above point, no. Saudi doesn’t want mass tourism, and seems to be going after the very highest tier of the travelling market – which means luxury hotels, luxury restaurants and luxury domestic travel. Do not come here expecting hostels and Airbnbs. They might pop up later down the track, but they certainly will be nowhere to be found for the immediate future.
Should you go to Saudi Arabia as a tourist in 2019?
The short answer is, no, I wouldn’t recommend it just yet unless you had endless time and willpower. There is no tourism infrastructure at the moment and you will have to be ferried around by a tour agency, with long hours in a car or airplane. Give it a few months to a year, and get out there to traverse the country unaided.
But on the flip side of this, if you do have the time and wherewithal, what better way to see Saudi than now? Now, when the country is still all but devoid of tourists and restrictions, and when you can travel to a Unesco world heritage site like Madain Saleh without another soul (let alone selfie stick) in sight. Where you can go to the thronging local hotspot of Old Jeddah and be the only blonde head bobbing about. Where a country is still thankful and excited about a foreigner in their midst; where it’s all still novel.
Does going to Saudi Arabia make you a terrible person and complicit in all of the government’s wrongdoings?
Well, if you were to listen to any of the social media pundits who chose to voice their opinions on this matter throughout last week, that would be a big, fat yes. But I (obviously) vehemently disagree. Why I’m not about to stand up for the Saudi government in any way, shape or form, this isn’t just about them. Why should we deny the Saudi people the chance to make a living from what might become a thriving tourism economy? Why can’t we enjoy the fact that the country is beautiful and diverse and there are things to see there?
The slaying of Jamal Khashoggi was an utter tragedy and an inexcusable crime. And the Saudi government, and the country as a whole, are still grappling with the after-effects of that. As they should.
Gender inequality still has a long way to go, too. But at the same time, we met many Saudi women doing amazing things and freeing themselves from archaic laws and belief systems. And I truly believe that the reforms coming into effect, however slowly, are going to have a positive impact here.
Here’s to a new Saudi. One that celebrates tourists as much as it does its own citizens, where the most generous, kind and giving people get to reap the rewards of its doors being open.