When it comes to traveling in the Middle East, there are the destinations that play a prominent role on the tourism stage (Dubai, Jordan, Israel) and those that are largely considered off-limits. Saudi Arabia, a country bordered by Jordan and Iraq to the north and Oman and Yemen to the south, has held its ground in the latter camp, but that’s all about to change. Starting April 1, the conservative, closed-off country will start issuing tourist visas for the first time since 2010.
In the past, visas mainly opened the borders to business travelers, folks visiting family, and religious pilgrims making the trip to Mecca. In an effort to reduce its economic dependence on oil, however, the nation is turning to tourism. Aside from getting a close-up look at one of the world’s most restricted countries, highlights include Mada’in Saleh, a UNESCO World Heritage site known for its rock-cut tombs; the Red Sea town of Jedda; the capital city of Riyadh; and the Sarawat Mountains.
But expect a fair amount of red tape. Women over 25 will be able to obtain a 30-day tourist visa, while those under the age limit will not be allowed into the country alone, and will have to be accompanied by a family member. “Prospective visitors who were born in Israel or whose passport contains evidence of previous travel to Israel may be refused admission,” The Independent reports.
Visitors to the region should also be vigilant of the conservative culture here, especially when it comes to dress, gender, and alcohol. Women are encouraged to wear loose-fitting, modest clothes and a headscarf. “Homosexual acts and extra-marital sexual relations, including adultery, are illegal and can be subject to severe punishment,” the Foreign & Commonwealth Office states. Plus, non-Muslim travelers won’t be able to visit the famous cities of Mecca and Medina, Conde Nast Traveler reports.
The U.S. State Department cautions travelers that “terrorist groups continue plotting possible attacks in Saudi Arabia” and that “terrorists have targeted both Saudi and Western government interests, mosques and other religious sites (both Sunni and Shia), and places frequented by U.S. citizens and other Westerners.” However, it’s worth nothing that the country is ranked at a level 2 in terms of safety and security, the same designation as France and the United Kingdom.
But despite these restrictions and deterrents, the country hopes to bring in 30 million visitors by 2030. Starting in 2019, it even plans to kick off a construction project developing resorts on islands in the Red Sea, The Points Guy reports. The resorts will be “governed by laws on par with international standards.” (Translation: dress codes likely won’t be enforced in these areas, though it’s unclear if alcohol will be permitted.)
With this news — plus the recent announcement that women will be allowed to drive without requiring permission, and the lift on the ban on cinema after 35 years — it begs the question: Is change on the horizon?
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