“My Kingdom will survive only if it remains a country difficult to access, where the foreigner will have no other aim, with his task fulfilled, but to get out.”
King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, modern Saudi Arabia’s founder and namesake, first uttered these words two years before uniting the desert kingdoms of Hejaz and Nejd to form Saudi Arabia’s present boundaries. Over 80 years later, Saudi Arabia is still inaccessible to most foreigners, especially since the country ceased issuing tourist visas in 2010. However, the few Westerners able to venture into this much-misunderstood desert nation will find many hidden treasures behind its strict Muslim religion and endless sand dunes.
Two sacred Saudi cities, Mecca and Medina, remain out of bounds to non-Muslims, but all Muslims must attend at least one Hajj pilgrimage to these holy sites during their lifetime. The Saudi city most accommodating towards foreigners, Jeddah, lies on the country’s Red Sea coast, but the country’s capital is the more conservative inland desert city of Riyadh. Many visitors to Saudi Arabia are shocked at the number of modern shopping centers and fast food chains sharing city streets with women wearing black abayas and minarets which loudly announce the five daily Muslim prayer times.
Visitors may not be able to wear skimpy swimwear on Saudi beaches, but they can explore some of the most unspoiled snorkeling and scuba diving sights on Earth. Saudi Arabia is also one of the few places in the world where visitors can ride camels or drive ATVs across the desert. The largely unknown Madain Saleh Cemetery boasts ancient ruins comparable to Petra’s, while Asir National Park’s green forests and cool mountains provide dramatic contrasts to the typical desert landscapes most people expect in Saudi Arabia.
The Hajj pilgrimage season, which varies each year according to Saudi Arabia’s Islamic calendar, is the country’s toughest time to find accommodation. Mecca and Medina hotel fees double during Hajj, while hotel fees in the mountain resort of Taif increase by about a quarter during its busiest summer season. Riyadh and Jeddah’s five-star hotels are just as luxurious as those in Western cities, but long-term serviced apartments have become popular alternatives. Most Saudi youth hostels are male-only. Saudi restaurants do not serve pork or alcohol, have separate sections for women and men, and completely close during Ramadan fasting times.
Once Saudi visitors complete the often-complicated visa process, they usually fly into the country via Riyadh’s King Khaled International Airport or Jeddah’s King Abdul Aziz International Airport. Comfortable air-conditioned buses or infrequent ferries between Hurghada, Egypt and Dubai are the most common overland transport into Saudi Arabia.
Taxis and sporadic bus service in major cities are the few public transportation options available in this oil-rich country filled with cheap fuel and reckless drivers. Women cannot drive or travel in automobiles with unrelated men. The 355-mile Saudi Railways Organization rail line between Riyadh and Dammam may be the most relaxing way to travel in Saudi Arabia.
- For Muslims, make the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca to see the Grand Mosque surrounding Islam’s most sacred holy site
- Ride a camel across one of the world’s biggest deserts
- See the Boiler Wreck and more than 200 colorful coral species beneath the Red Sea’s largely unexplored surface
- Watch the sun rise or set behind the Madain Saleh Cemetery’s 131 ornate tombs
- Escape the desert to explore Asir National Park’s mountains, forests and exotic wildlife
- Haggle with the vendors at Saudi Arabia’s traditional outdoor souqs
- Soar above the abandoned village of Habalah inside Saudi Arabia’s first network of cable cars
- Admire Al Musmak Castle’s palm tree trunk gate and fortified citadel in the heart of Riyadh