Saudi Arabia - the birthplace of Islam (tips for visiting the country)

Saudi Arabia - the birthplace of Islam (tips for visiting the country)

It took really long for Saudi Arabia to decide to open for tourists, but now it is finally a fact and Penguin Travel immediately put the destination on its belt.
The Kingdom – known as the spiritual birthplace of Islam, now has a new approach to attract visitors and that's why the visa requirements are changed. The changes are so big, compared to the past that they look almost like a revolution. For sure, that kind of tourism is a big challenge for both the western visitors and for the local people and local authorities. To make the process smooth and your trip enjoyable, here are some tips to follow, before and after landing in Saudi Arabia.

Entry requirements

Since 2019 citizens of 49 countries over the age of 18 can apply for an E-visa (the cost is approximately 120 USD).  Prior to that it was only possible to visit the Kingdom on a religious or business visa. The new rule is part of the Saudi Vision 2030 program, which aims to reduce the country's dependence on oil and diversify its economy.

 

 The floating mosque Al Rahma, Jeddah

 The floating mosque Al Rahma, Jeddah

Religious rules

The country’s citizens are required by law to be Muslim and there is ‘religious’ police force to look upon this. While foreigners are allowed to practice their religion in private, it is strongly forbidden to preach in public spaces, forums or on social media. Even a simple necklace with a cross on it can be considered preaching by some members of the local religion police. However, they usually do not enter hotels and tourist compounds and the rules are not so strict for Westerners. Criticising Islam, the country's government or the royal family is considered a severe offense. In Saudi Arabia, everything runs around the five daily prayers. Stores, restaurants and pretty much everything closes during each prayer for at least 20-30 minutes, so it's important to  plan your day keeping that in mind. 

Safety 

Despite some strict rules that need to be followed, Saudi Arabia is considered a safe country to visit, as long as you exercise normal precautions. It is not recommended to visit regions near the bordsers with Yemen and Iraq. 

Tabuk Castle

 Tabuk Castle

Social Customs 

The Saudis are some of the most kind and hospitable people you will meet. The locals are curious about Westerners and it is common to be invited to share a meal or cup of coffee with them. Men are not supposed to shake hands with women, unless women extend their hand first. Some people might find it offensive if you point a camera at them so you should always ask for permission beforehand. That appplies especially if you try to take a picture of local women.  It's forbidden to photograph anything that's government related - including ministries, airports, military facilities or anything that looks like it could be a government building. Most public spaces are segregated - there are different entrances for men and women. Most restaurants have different areas for men and for women and families. Although foreign unmarried couples are now allowed to share a hotel room, public displays of affection are frowned upon and you better avoid them. Both men and women are rquired to dress modestly in public areas. 

 Women in Riyadh. 

Travelling to Saudi Arabia as a female 

As things are loosening up for travellers, women no longer need a guardian to travel in the country. It is still expected in some parts of the country, but it is not the law anymore and it is not uncommon to meet solo female travellers in the country, especially in the big cities. While both men and women should dress modestly, wearing a burqa is not mandatory. Long sleeves and headscarves are recommended to show respect to the local customs. Tourists are even allowed to wear swimsuits on some of the private beaches and boats. 

Is it worth visiting?

Despite these somewhat controversial rules that need to be followed, a visit to Saudi Arabia will  soon pay off. With its great treasures and remarkable cultural heritage, this is one of the most enigmatic  places to visit. Some of the places that are not to be missed on a trip to Saudi Arabia are the historical quarter of Jeddah Al-Balad, the floating mosque  Al Rahma, Masmak Fortress in Riyadh, the awe-inspiring rock formation Elephant Rock, also known as Jabal AlFil and many more.

Elephant Rock Formation

 Elephant Rock Formation

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