Within one hour, I had one of the newly announced tourist visas, a flight ticket, and the fear that comes with entering one of the worlds most oppressive countries as a woman.
Originally I was planning to see one of the strangest natural places on earth, Socotra Yemen - but due to a large helping of bureaucracy and plenty of safety concerns, I was denied entry to my flight as I was secluded to board. This triggered twelve hours of chaos as some friends and I frantically planned what to do and where to go next. But it was obvious, I was going to Suadi Arabia.
During the previous weeks, the news was all over the place, Saudi was open for business and everyone was going. This was the place to be as a backpacker, and every traveler had their finger on the button for that ever elusive, brand new, Arabian e-visa.
Only a year ago, getting into Saudi Arabia required obtaining a business visa for the extortionate price of $3000, and gaining entry to a tourism conference for another $5000. Not a cheap endeavor for your typical budget traveler, and even harder to pass as a legitimate business while wearing a backpack and sandals.
So it was no surprise when the travel-scene exploded in an uproar on September 27th when the Suadi government announced its new visa program for tourists. For the low price of $124 people from 49 countries can now get access to the kingdom for three months, multi entry.
Visitsaudi.com was by far the easiest means of getting it, and after applying in the typical fashion ---passport information and a 200x200 pixel photo --- my visa was approved within minutes.
The second my visa was approved, I booked a cheap flight from Cairo to Riyadh scheduled to leave two hours later, and by the end of the day I had arrived.
I have to admit that given the completely rushed nature of this trip, I only glanced at what was expected of me as a women in Saudi. Looking back at the "how to dress" section of the visa website, I realize that my t-shirt and jeans apparel was less-than desired by what is an extremely conservative government.
Openly asking Saudis their thoughts on how I was dressed ---- typically sporting long sleeve shirts and jeans ---- their responses were not only accepting, but enthusiastic of a new wave of changes in the country. Speaking with women themselves, I did encounter some hesitation, specifically regarding a fear of how rebellious their kids will be in the future given the new outside influence.
I must also provide a huge caveat ---- Expect staring ---- Western women, especially those who choose to travel alone, are foreign and unexpected. You will be looked at, you may be questioned, and you may even experience some negativity. However, in my time traveling, all it usually takes is a smile and a gentle "Salaam Alaikum" to ease all tension and encourage a happy wave out of your curious watchers.
When in doubt, wear an Abaya robe that covers your legs - but keep it open if you're a rebel.
But that modest expectation is far from the accepting and encouraging attitude I felt while traveling liberally through the country.
While I realize now that my clothing could have easily been deemed indecent (wearing short sleeves a few days specifically) I do not condone knowingly, or ignorantly breaking the law, and travelers should always be aware of customs in every country they visit. Below, I am providing an easy to understand guide to Suadi laws regarding travelers, and what is expected of you when you come, and the cost of fines if you get caught breaking the rules.
The experience you have with locals may not align with the greater attitude with the country, and while I think it's important to push boundaries, do so with grace and common sense.
SAFETY AND TOURISM
Due to the fact that Saudi has been closed to the prying eyes of backpacker culture, and has a very tarnished reputation in the media, I had no idea what to expect in regards to safety. I came prepared for the worst, ready to be either insulted or ostracized for my obviously western appearance. Each day I thought, this will be the day I experience a rude man, a glaring look, a shaking head... It never came.
As a traveler you build up a special kind of awareness, a cautious behavior, and a voice in the back of your mind that tells you not to leave your bag open, to keep a hand on your pockets, and to watch for anyone who may be getting too close for comfort. In Saudi we lost a number of things, sunglasses, my jacket, a box of trinkets... and each time, those things were returned to us.
I would like to note that there is a very specific reason that crimes are so infrequent in Saudi Arabia, and that is entirely due to the use of capital punishment. in 2019, Saudi Arabia held a public mass execution of 37 men, the majority of those being part of the minority Shia community. The country executes about 150 people each year on average.
Saudi Arabia is also a country devoid of due-process, and crimes are punished with extremely severe consequences. And while this can be viewed as making it a safe country to visit, one should not forget that this system can be easily flipped to target the innocent, including tourists. Given this fact, it is of the utmost importance for visitors to know the laws, and enter at their own risk.
Whether it was finding lost iPhones, getting above-average currency exchange rates, or receiving gifts at no extra charge, Saudi has proved to be not only honest, but dramatically hospitable.
There is a huge empty space where the tourism industry should be in Saudi. The country advertises this idyllic image of foreigners visiting beautiful sites in the country, but sadly... these sites are almost all closed, under construction, or being restored. Madain Salleh, Masmak Fortress, and the Hanging Village were all inaccessible.
There is a huge disconnect between what the government advertises and what is the reality. Even when sites are said to be open, you may arrive to find locked doors. Tourism has a long way to go in the future, and it's in your best interest to remain flexible, have a back up plan, and expect to be turned away at some of you planned spots.
WHAT TO SEE AND HOW TO GET THERE
Saudi Arabia is huge. Distances are not only far, but relatively barren. If you're planning on crossing the country by land, the below route will take you multiple days and I would recommend a two week minimum stay. If you don't have the much time, flying from Riyadh to Abha or Jezan is your best bet to see everything that needs to be seen. Caution should be taken when flying into Abha as there are no night flights for security reasons.
Driving between Abha and Jezan is quite easy and takes around 3 hours, either hire a private car, or get yourself a driver. I covered the distance twice with few stops in between and no issues.
With the ability to reach anywhere in the country with a two hour flight, low security-airports, and cheap prices, flying may be the best method for someone with a tight schedule. But if deserts are your thing, and you have plenty of time, I'd recommend driving.
Saudi's capital and financial hub, Riyadh is perfect for those who like to indulge in the finer things. For around $300 a night, you can stay at the magnificent Ritz Carlton, elegantly adorned with islamic designs, home to a fantastic non-alcoholic bar, grand ballroom, bowling alley, and spa.
During the day, it's likely be too hot to be outdoors, so spend the afternoon on an architectural tour down the strip. Kingdom Tower and Globe Tower both provide excellent views of the city, but come at with a $20 fee to go up to the view point.
If you're more into the outdoors, I'd recommend taking the three hour drive to the edge of the world. Also called Jebel Fihrayn, this geological wonder is an epic 1000ft drop and a perfect spot to take drone footage. Either book a tour, or rent a 4x4 SUV and go it alone.
The capital of the Asir region and home to the famous buildings of Rijal Almaa. This region is the gateway between Yemen and the religious capital of Mecca. Borders are blurred here and Yemeni culture is prevalent.
Abha, given it's location within the Asir mountains makes it much more temperate and fertile than the rest of Saudi. If visiting in the spring time you will see more green than ever expected when visiting a desert country. Where Abha lacks in notable sites, it makes up with rich culture, excellent Souqs, and a warm and hospitable culture.
Jezan, home to the elusive flower men. Adorned with intricate crowns of marigold, the flower men of the Tihama and Asir tribes are a unique sight. Given how limited foreign tourism is in the area, these men may be a little apprehensive to take photos. I'd recommend buying a crown or two to warm them up.
Jezan souq is also a must see with a visit to the tea-house of AhmSaalem. This man has been brewing tea for sixty years and is quite the character. Along the way, pick up some fried Lokma, Jasmine perfume, or your very own Abaya.
Officially, according to the locals, we were the very first foreigners on the Farasan islands, and I'm happy to tell you that they are beautiful. A quick one hour ferry from the Jezzan port will get you to the island --- and for free too! Once you get passed the industrial nature of Farasan, the islands are exactly what you expect from the red sea --- Minus the garbage, hordes of tourists, and pushy shop owners.
Be sure not to settle for the main beach of Farasan. Hire a boat to take you out to see and hunt for the best diving spots around. Get ready for virtually untouched corals, plenty of fish, and crystal clear waters. Boat rentals are around 300SAR per hour. When it's time for a break there are a few stretches of sand with small worn-out cabanas you can lounge under.
If water isn't your thing, Farasan has a few buildings with interesting architecture and elaborate archways. However, the island is poorly developed and has little to offer tourists.
The last stop during my week in Saudi, and while there are few things to do, the historical center of the city cannot be missed. Al-Balad, once the city's center, has since been abandoned by locals and is now primarily home to immigrants. The buildings are unusually tall with wooden finishings, and lean precariously into the narrow streets. Seemingly as if to defy gravity, these homes are elegantly crooked, pastel-painted wonders.
Be sure to find the "Herbalists Lane" a winding street full of plants. It's obvious that someone loves this street as it's very well cared-for and has small snippets of information for passersby. Old town Jeddah is an artists dream and deserves a full evening, if not more, of exploring.
ALI EBRAHIM MOGHAWI
THE GOOD: Ali is a charismatic guide who goes above and beyond for his guests. Ali met us last minute in Jezan, and then drove us three hours north to his home in Abha because we were unable to book any flights the night before. Ali was excited to share his culture and provided us with the highest level of hospitality.
THE BAD: My only critique is that Ali loves to speak. To be fair, he has many interesting things to say, however, he has a tendency to not listen closely to questions asked.
Ali Ebrahim Moghawi +966 50 574 9843
THE GOOD: Ebrahim is a young and enthusiastic guide who is responsive and fun to be around. Ebrahim guided us through the markets of Abha and the museum in Tamniah. Ebrahim really saved my day when I forgot my jacket behind in his car, and speedily met us at our next stop to deliver it to me. He also mailed a pair of sunglasses for another guest to be picked up at our last stop in Jeddah.
THE BAD: Relatively out of Ebrahim's control, some locations he brought us to were either closed or abandoned, including the anticipated "Hanging City" near Abha.
Ebrahim Jaafar +966 56 744 4832
ALI FROM RIYADH
THE GOOD: Ali was a kind guide who toured us through Riyadh on a government tour that we found when first arriving at the airport. Ali's tour took us through the cultural center of Riyadh, through an auction market, and finished with a traditional dinner. Ali really helped us out when we tried booking flights and had our cards declines --- Not only did he help us book it but he paid for it himself (and was reimbursed of course) Ali treated us like friends and I'd love to tour with him again.
THE BAD: While I'm in love with Falcons, I cannot condone using animals for the entertainment of guests. Ali, I hope you leave the bird at home next time, where she's happiest.
Ali - Number unknown
WHAT I THINK
Saudi Arabia was unexpected, the plan was last minute and things were bumpy at times due to a lack of industry. As a woman traveler I was cautiously comfortable, and often surprised by small kindnesses. As a backpacker, I felt like a trailblazer. Anyone visiting in 2020 will be discovering something new, setting standards, and uncovering a place that is only beginning to emerge.