Saudi Arabia has announced that tourist visas will be available for the first time in the country’s modern history; but what exactly does this mean? Who can apply for one? What does it get you? Is it safe to visit? When should you go? And what is there to actually see and do in Saudi Arabia?
Taking a step back from the headlines, we are looking at Saudi tourism specifically for adventurous FAMILIES who may be curious to visit.
We’ve done our best to consolidate this information into a useful guide for you to understand:
- The new Visa rules and what to expect
- What should first-time visitors to Saudi Arabia be aware of
- What is there to see and do in Saudi Arabia
- A note on politics and safety in Saudi Arabia
- The future of Saudi Tourism
How will the Saudi Tourism Visa work?
According to the visit Saudi Tourism website – VisitSaudi.com, a Saudi Tourist Visa will work as follows:
- Anyone over the age of 18 can apply. Those under 18 must have an application completed by a parent/guardian
- There are currently 49 nationalities who can complete the eVisa Application on line – see if you are from an eligible country here
- If you are not from an eligible country, you can still apply via your local Saudi Embassy or Consulate.
- Tourist Visas will cost 440 Saudi Rial, about $117USD.
- Once your eVisa is approved, it will last for 12 months and the multi-entry visa allows for stays up to 90 days.
- An electronic copy of the Visa approval should be printed and presented to Saudi authorities on arrival.
- The only geographic restriction is that non-Muslims may not enter the Holy Cities of Medina and Mecca.
[We are hearing reports that the online system is still glitchy, we will update on this page further when we hear further reports on families successfully applying. Since COVID-19 border closures in March 2020 Tourist Visas are now on hold]
At the time of writing, we are advised within the first week of the scheme opening already 5000 applications had been made.
What should first-time visitors to Saudi Arabia be aware of?
- The newly launched Visit Saudi website contains extensive information in English on everything from do’s and don’ts, social etiquette, health and safety information, food, hotel and transportation tips.
- Non-Muslim women are not required by law to have their head covered by a Shaila, nor wear an abaya, though female visitors may feel more comfortable to do so. The request is that guests dress modestly covering both knees and shoulders, as would be requested of visitors in other Gulf countries (though we imagine much more strictly applied than in the UAE, for example). You can find our full dress code guidance for Saudi Arabia here.
- Females are not required to have a male chaperone. We are awaiting confirmation that women are allowed to drive rental cars – drivers licenses are still a very new concept.
- Tourism is still a very new industry for Saudi Arabia. They have ambitious plans to increase tourism from 3% of GDP to 10% of GDP by 2030; Although extensive training of local staff has commenced, there is still significant education, training and infrastructure required to reach this vision.
What is there to see and do in Saudi Arabia?
It’s important to remember Saudi Arabia is a huge country! The largest in the Middle East and the 12th largest in the world. It would take weeks to cover it all.
Saudi Arabia is home to five UNESCO sites and dozens of beautiful natural landscapes, historic villages and amazing buildings. The map below helps you navigate to some of the country’s highlights so you can see them in perspective to the major airports.
It is also very important to note that not all infrastructure is in place yet to cope with an influx of tourism, this is very much a 10-year plan. Outside of the big cities, western-style accommodation is limited.
We are a long way from seeing many of the touted tourism hot spots opening to the public, or re-opening after significant rehabilitation work. At present, there are 15 major sites being promoted by Visit Saudi as ready (though no exact list was given), with plans to grow this to 38 sites by 2030.
Jeddah and the west of Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom’s second-largest city boasts a beautiful well-developed waterfront Corniche.
Explore the back streets of Al Balad (Old Jeddah) – one of the country’s UNESCO sites – more on exploring Jeddah with kids here.
Still under construction – few progress reports have been seen or heard since 2017 – but it is planned to be the tallest tower in the world – if it completes.
Al Wahbah Crater
A volcanic crater 450km east of Jeddah, or 700km west from Riyadh. Some 2kms wide and 250m deep, adventurous hikers can make the 45-minute journey to the salt pan beneath.
To the south of Saudi Arabia
Dhee Ayn, Marble Village (Aqabat al-Baha)
In the Al Bhah province, this is a 400-year-old settlement built on top of a marble hill. In the nearby mountains of Al Bahah, you will also find forests and waterfalls.
Al Soudah & the Asir National Park
Located near Abha in the south-west corner of the country. This is where locals escape to in the hot summer months with outdoor activities, camping even a cable car. Mt Soudah is Saudi Arabia’s tallest point.
A beautiful and unique marine wildlife sanctuary, the closest land point Jizan. You can read more about visiting the Farasan Islands in the Red Sea here.
North West Saudi Arabia & the Red Sea
The Red Sea
The Red Sea off the coast of Saudi Arabia is one of the most thriving coral reefs that still exists in the world today.
The Red Sea Project is an ambitious plan to develop the Red Sea Coast between Umluj and Al Wajh, including the inland desert involves a challenging mix of heritage, culture and conservation.
At present, there are existing resort towns for the Red Sea in Yanbu and Al Rayis bu these areas will becoming significantly more developed. You can read more about visiting the Farasan Islands in the Red Sea here
Neom – Independent Economic Zone
Neom is a planned futuristic development in the country’s north-west, that will see a $500 billion high tech city built as part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 post-oil diversification plan.
Immensely ambitious, the 26,500 square kilometre project, panning over neighbouring Egypt and Jordan will become home to many sectors including biotech, food, technology – and tourism.
One of the largest existing cities in the country’s north-west, this is a good base for exploring the archaeological wonders of the region and approximately 2.5 hours from the Red Sea. Highlights include the Tabuk Fortress (Castle) and ancient natural springs.
Near to the Jordanian border, you will find an incredible array of historical, nature and heritage sites such as Ancient Dadan, the capital of the Dadan and Lihyan Kingdoms.
Discover the tombs of the ancient Nabatean people which have remained largely untouched for decades. You are able to drive up close to the tombs, (though many have been closed since late 2017 while extensive archaeological surveys are taking place).
The exception to this has been a marketing campaign Winter at Tantora festival, which is touted to return this December again through to March.
Near to Riyadh, central and east Saudi Arabia
At-Turaif District in ad-Dir’iyah
The first capital of the Saudi dynasty (1744 to 1818) and a UNESCO-listed site sitting to the northwest of Riyadh. It consists almost entirely of mud-brick structures, an example of Najdi architectural and decorative style developed to cope with the extreme desert climate.
Al Murabba Palace
The former home and court of King Abdul Aziz, the founder of modern Saudi Arabia, and a monument to the city’s captivating past. This has been a focal point building in Visit Saudi’s tourism push.
An annual cultural festival held in Riyadh (around February-March), this is a chance for visitors to get immerse themselves in Saudi culture. Experience Saudi foods, music, camel races, falconry and handicrafts.
Al Hofuf, Al-Ahsa Oasis
A lush oasis in the Eastern province. The area is known for being the largest date production in the world, as well as the old souks and palaces of Al Hofuf.
Edge of the World
Part of the 800km long Jebel Tuwaiq Escarpment, one of the most spectacular natural phenomenons in the world. The dramatic cliff faces actually make it feel like you’re standing on the edge of the world – this is probably the one spot you have seen heavily instagrammed promoting Saudi tourism.
There’s a great guide here on exactly how to plan a day trip from Riyadh to the Edge of The World.
Safety and politics in Saudi Arabia
It would be remiss of us we believe not to mention politics and safety when talking about Saudi Arabia. When we set out with this Middle East blog, we made it very clear we would not be drawn into politics.
We feel the role of this site is to educate on tourism attractions and practical tips on how to actually go about travelling in the region. Tourism is a very new concept for Saudi Arabia. We have spoken to media outlets, been privy to press releases and spoken with expatriate residents as well as staff involved in some of the aforementioned tourism projects in putting this article together for information and education purposes.
We will continue to update this page, as well as our Saudi with Kids homepage as more information becomes available. If you are aware of any inaccuracies or have any comments on this page, please email us.
Travelling to any new country comes with a mix of informing yourself not only on the tourism infrastructure but the laws, etiquette and policies of that host country, as well as any safety or diplomatic issues as advised by your country of citizenship.
See more information and safety warning specifics as issued by:
- The US State Department
- UK Foreign & Commonwealth Travel Advice
- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs
We must all piece together our own puzzle and decide what is best for us, our own families and our own world education from multiple sources.
Future development of the Saudi Tourism Industry
Saudi Arabia has been gearing up for this move for quite some time, but it would be fair to say it’s a very early work in progress.
Whilst the big cities are used to coping with business travellers and Hajj pilgrimage, other parts of the country are less equipped with tourism infrastructure and will still take time until they are reaady to welcome tourists from the west en-masse.
It still waits to be seen how progressive views on women’s rights will become and the role tourism will play.
We may not be rushing to take out our Saudi tourist visa immediately but we are intensely watching this space to see how things progress in 2020 and beyond to Vision 2030.