In January 2020, I traveled to Saudi Arabia – a country that has been closed to travelers for ever, and only now beginning to open up. Of course Covid has put a question mark over when and how travel to the Kingdom will resume travel, but I was lucky enough to spend a few incredibly fascinating days exploring this mysterious land.
Saudi Arabia announced in 2019 that tourist visas would begin to be issued. This was the beginning of a very large scale bid to put the country on the tourist map as soon as possible. With an unspoiled Red Sea coast, a vast desert interior, fascinating cities and magnificent UNESCO World Heritage Sites including the Petra- like archeological site of Madain Saleh/Hegra, the country may become a top ten worldwide destination. The Saudi government has already invested a huge amount in some areas, and has plans to build world class resorts long the coast. Whether Covid will affect these plans remains to be seen.
It is simple to travel to Saudi. One applies for a visa online. So long as you carry a passport from an approved country (mine is Canadian), the process is almost instantaneous.
I flew from Paris to Jeddah on Saudia, the national carrier. The flight was uneventful, and had some very interesting touches I have not come across before. For example, the map always show’s the aircraft in relation to Mecca and tells you exactly when the next prayer time is. I watched a fascinating Saudi made full length feature movie, in English, about the early 20th century history of the country.
Arrival was quick, with various queues depending on what kind of visa you carry. While I am a very experienced traveler, the strict adherence to Muslim rules were much more obvious than I had ever experienced before, and I have been to various Muslim countries in Africa and Asia. Most women are clothed from head to toe and one can only see their eyes. People were very friendly and I quickly learned that I could easily get around with Uber.
I arrived at my hotel after midnight and so first impressions were every limited. Jeddah (and Saudi in general) has excellent international chain hotels, like everywhere else. The vast majority of employees appeared to be from other countries – Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines and many more, mainly Asian countries. During the course of my trip it became very clear that foreigners occupy most of service industry jobs in the country.
Western chains and fast food restaurants are commonly seen – when I asked at the hotel about the nearest ATM, I was told it was next to the Tim Hortons ( a popular Canadian coffee and donut chain).
My second day was set aside for exploration!