One of the most secluded places left on the globe is opening its gates to tourists. The Kingdom of Saudi-Arabia, by far the largest country on the Arabian peninsula, has begun to issue tourist visas on October 1, 2019. This is part of a program of Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman to modernize the country and make it more attractive for non-arabic foreigners.
Costs: Visa at €107, Flights start at €400
At 440 Saudi Rials, roughly €107, a visa to Saudi-Arabia surely counts among the more expensive ones. In addition, flights from Europe to Saudia capital Riyadh start at €400 with a stop in Amman or Beirut. Unsurpringsingly, nonstop connections cost a little more. While getting there is a rather expensive venture, hotel prices as well as domestic flights are comparatively cheap.
All citizens of the European Union are eligible to apply for a visa, as well as citizens of Andorra, Australia, Brunei, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Iceland, Japan, Kazakhstan, South Korea, Liechtenstein, Macau, Malaysia, Monaco, Montenegro, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, San Marino, Singapore, Switzerland, Taiwan, Ukraine and the United States.
Historically Important Sites Remain Closed
Sadly, the historically and culturally most interesting sites within the country, the holy cities of Medina and Mecca, remain closed for non-muslim visitors. There are no short term plans to change that. The Saudi government aims to concentrate tourism around the shores of the Red Sea. This campaign primarily targets leisure visitors, spending their vacation on beach side resorts. If you want to catch a glimpse of daily life in Saudi-Arabia, a trip to Riyadh, Jeddah, Ta’if or Dammam might be an interesting venture, nonethenless.
Vast Cultural Differences
Poeple from Europe or America visiting the country should be prepared for vast cultural differences between their home country and their temporary hosts. After all, we’re talking about a country that allowed women to drive a car on their own just last year. According to reviews, the Islamic religion is an important part of everyday life. As a result, trying to import alcohol or pork meat into the country is a punishable offense. Visitors should respect the local rules regarding clothing and public behaviour.
While for some this is an invitation for judgemental statements about a deeply conservative country, it is also a welcome opportunity to realize that normal means totally different things in different parts of the world. Gaining new insights and another point of view is a key element of travelling, after all.
Political Issues Amid Strive to Modernization
Admittedly, Saudia-Arabia got its fair share of bad press last year. Current Saudi ruler Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman seems to do his best to break up century old beliefs and habits within the country. Still, his alleged involvement in the Yemen civil war and the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi did not went unnoticed in Western media. As did his (successful) attempt to diplomatically isolate neighbouring Qatar.
The issuing of tourist visas is nonethenless a strong sign of willingness to open up to foreign culture. Some may see it as a step towards opening up to (more) foreign money, but I think the argument doesn’t work. Saudi-Arabia already got plenty of that before issuing visas.
Personally, I really enjoyed the Arabic countries I’ve visited so far (Jordan & the United Arab Emirates) and find the thought of travelling Saudi-Arabia rather intruiging.
Cover Picture: © pixabay-user hoganj under pixaby-licencse