In a push to diversify its economy, Saudi Arabia has opened its doors to international tourists for the first time.
Long been seen as off-limits for holidaymakers, the conservative Middle Eastern Kingdom has now introduced a visa regime for 49 countries. It had previously only been open to business travellers, expatriates, and Muslims visiting Mecca for the hajj and umrah pilgrimages.
There are a few caveats the country’s new tourists should be mindful of. For example, women will still need to dress modestly in public, and non-Muslims will not be allowed to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. However, there are still plenty of reasons why travellers should consider planning a trip.
The country’s tourist industry is in its infancy, but Saudi Arabia’s geographic location, rich and complex history and strong sense of culture offer a holiday destination like no other. So, what can you expect to see?
Incredible scuba diving
Some of the world’s best diving can be found in the Red Sea, with its warm temperatures and pristine reefs. Saudi Arabia has endless, untouched beaches and vendors now offer boat trips from cities such as Jeddah, Yanbu and Al-lith.
The ancient city of Mada’in Saleh
Designated a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2008 – the first site in Saudi Arabia to get this accolade – Mada’in Saleh was the second largest city of the Nabateans, a group of people who settled across ancient Arabia up until around 106 CE. You won’t get lost in the crowds at these vast ruins, which contain 130 tombs, pre-Islamic alters and adobe dwellings.
Neolithic art of Jubbah and Shuwaymis
The country’s best and oldest examples of Neolithic rock art are in Jubbah, northwest of the city of Ha’il, and in Shuwaymis, near the town of al-Hayit. These remarkable petroglyphs, which include a variety of male and female figures and hunting scenes, are a mind-blowing 10,000 years old.
The ‘Saudi Arabian Maldives’
Umluj is a city in the Tabuk province that spreads 150 kilometres north of Yanbu and contains 104 stunning islands. Its clear, turquoise waters, white sand, and lack of crowds, have earned the area the nickname of the ‘Saudi Arabian Maldives.’
The Al Wahbah volcanic crater
Some 155 miles away from the city of Taif is Al Wahbah, a large volcanic crater with a salt field in its centre. At about 820 ft deep, it’s best explored by competent hikers, taking around two to three hours to get down and back up again. If you’d rather take in the views in a more leisurely style, it’s also a popular camping spot.