Tourists can, for the first time, obtain a visa to visit Saudi Arabia without facing the strict requirements that previously made it nigh impossible. Anyone planning to attend a grand prix being held there in December can now buy an ordinary 14-day tourist visa, the Kingdom has announced, giving them access to the race but also to the rest of the country.
It’s the latest in a series of new government initiatives that hopes to encourage 30 million holidaymakers a year by 2030. Saudi Arabia clamped down on tourism in 2010 but in April of this year reversed their approach and started issuing tourist visas again. In reality, however, they were still tough to obtain unless the traveller was on a muslim pilgrimage for Hajj or Umrah.
The new option, priced at 640 SAR (£131), makes the process far more straightforward. Using an online platform dubbed Sharek, visitors can buy tickets for the Saudi Ad Diriyah Formula E grand prix near Riyadh, to be held on December 15, and apply for their 14-visa at the same time.
HRH Prince Abdulaziz BinTurki, vice-chairman of the General Sports Authority, said: “The best way for people to see the real Saudi Arabia is to come, and this their chance.”
The inaugural grand prix, which kicked off in Beijing in September 2014, pits electric-powered racing cars against eachother in a race that wind through the streets of ancient city Ad Diriyah, a Unesco-listed site on the outskirts of the Saudi capital on a 2.8km route featuring 21 corners.
Why the sudden tourism drive?
Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, keen on moving the nation’s economy away from a dependence on oil, is the driving force behind Saudi’s new-found commitment to its tourism and leisure industry. His view is perhaps in part related to the continued success of this industry in its neighbours Dubai and Bahrain.
Talking to the Associated Press earlier this year, he said: “[Saudi Arabia] is open for people that are doing business, for people working in Saudi Arabia, investing in Saudi Arabia, and people who are visiting for special purposes. And now it will be open for tourism again on a selected basis.”
There are limitations on the availability of the visa to women, for starters. Female solo travellers over the age of 25 are able to obtain a 30-day tourist visa, but those under 25 will have to be accompanied by a family member.
Will Saudi Arabia’s tough laws apply to tourists?
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for tourists considering a holiday in Saudi Arabia are the strict rules that remain in place governing women, religion and dress, as well as a total ban on alcohol. There is also international concern over the Kingdom’s human rights record.
But change could be in the air. What with the eradication of the driving ban in June, finally allowing women to drive without requiring permission, and the ban on cinema lifted after 35 years in January, laws surrounding foreign visitors could be relaxed too.
The country’s Vision 2030 Plan includes the Red Sea development, scheduled to start in late 2019 – the intention being that resorts will be governed by laws “on par with international standards”, meaning that women should be able to wear bikinis.
Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund described the project as an “exquisite luxury resort destination established across 50 untouched natural islands”. The Kingdom said the plans would include “the development of hotels and luxury residential units, as well as all logistical infrastructure – including air, land and sea transport hubs”. The 50 islands under development on the coast will be turned into luxury resorts, the first phase of which is due to be completed by the end of 2022.
It isn’t yet clear exactly which of the strict Islamic laws will be exempt in the resorts, but it’s likely to mirror the status quo in places like Dubai, where tourists are permitted to drink alcohol and don swimwear at certain resorts, beaches and waterparks, but not public places.
These resorts aren’t open yet – why else would I visit Saudi Arabia?
Plenty of reasons. Here are just seven of its highlights.
The largest conserved site of the Nabataean civilization south of Petra – and without the crowds you’ll find in Jordan. It features 111 monumental tombs, 94 with decorated facades, dating from the 1st century BC to the 1st century AD. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1293
Saudi Arabia can boast four Unesco World Heritage Sites, including the Rock Art of the Hail Region, which includes numerous representations of human and animal figures covering 10,000 years of history. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1472
Saudi Arabia has fine beaches, believe it or not. The Farasan Islands, off the coast of Jizan, possess some of the best. For better or worse, this archipelago is one of the sites earmarked for development.
Rub’ al Khali (The Empty Quarter)
The largest continuous body of sand in the world, covering some 250,000 square miles. Excursions are offered.
Frank Gardner, writing for Telegraph Travel, described Jeddah as his favourite Arab city.
“As a steamy, Red Sea trading port it has a bustle and buzz like no other place in Saudi Arabia,” he said. “In the winding, labyrinthine backstreets of the old quarter, known as the ‘Balad’, you hear every language and dialect of the region. Here, little has changed since I first explored its colourful street markets in the 1980s, but in the open boulevards of north Jeddah I was in for a surprise. As the sun sank low, a cavalcade of bikers and souped-up sports car enthusiasts gathered in their hundreds, a Bob Marley reggae track blaring from giant speakers mounted on a flatbed. I rode with them, savouring the warm breeze on my face and the unexpected pleasure of hearing music played publicly in a country that normally frowns on such earthly pleasures.”
The city’s highlights include Souq al-Alawi, Al-Tayibat City Museum for International Civilisation, the Corniche, and Jeddah Tower – planned to be the world’s tallest building – still currently under construction.
Frank Gardner also recommended this mountain range in southwestern Saudi Arabia. “Many imagine Saudi to be a monotone vista of deserts, camels, oil wells and motorways, but this corner is a land of precipitous terraced crops and plunging ravines, home to nearly half a million wild baboons, eagles and dazzling-blue lizards,” he said. “It has long been one of the most isolated corners of this secretive kingdom, a place where almost within living memory tribe fought tribe, and village fought village.”
Of this coastal town he said: “Anyone who had this as a first glimpse of Saudi Arabia could be forgiven for thinking he was in Africa. Exotic, pendulous nests made by weaver birds hung from branches and some of the houses were round and dome-shaped huts, topped by elaborately fashioned rope and thatch. That night we feasted on fresh fish and fiery sauce, cooked in front of us by garrulous, black-shrouded women who sharply warned the local men to keep their distance, but who were kind and hospitable to their guests from Britain.”
But before you go…
A word of warning. Don’t forget that strict laws remain in place across Saudi Arabia, so be sure to research how to dress and behave in public before visiting. The Foreign Office advises against travel to the regions where Saudi Arabia borders Yemen.