Saudi Arabia: Welcome to Islam's spiritual birthplace

There are strict rules to follow in the Kingdom, but the remarkable cultural heritage inside makes the efforts more than worth

Travel in Saudi Arabia with Penguin Travel

It took really long for Saudi Arabia to decide to open for random tourists. But now it is finally on and Penguintravel immediately put the destination on its belt!

The Kingdom – known as the spiritual birthplace of theIslam, now has new approach to attract visitors and that's why the visarequirements are changed. The changes are so big, compared to the past thatthey look almost like a revolution. Let's say just that young, not married and unaccompanied western women will have a change to visit the state!

For sure, that kind of tourism is a big challenge forboth the western visitors and for the local people and local authorities.  To make toprocess smooth and to avoid some dramatically big mistakes, here are some tipsto follow, before and after landing in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has traditionally welcomedpilgrims making the Hajj to the holy city of Mecca. But never forget that mainstream tourism isstill very controversial and has been criticised by some clerics. That's why youshould really follow the local religious rules and this is not a joke atall!

Restrictions are a bit changed now, compared to the past, but they arestill a must. For example, non accompanied woman can visit the Kingdom only ifthey are at least 25 years old. If you are younger lady, sorry but you shouldfind a man to come with you. Keep in mind that in the past the limit for thosekind of women was 40 years, so something is moving there, right?..  

Once you get your visa, never ever dareto criticize Islam in the Kingdom! It is considered a big crime! Publiclycriticising the King, the royal family, or the government of Saudi Arabia isnot tolerated even in the slightest and can attract the attentions of the Muttawa (the religious police) or securitypersonnel.

Is it worth to acceptall of these strict rules, just to visit the country then?

Well, if you aredisciplined, responsible and you love to explore new places, that not so manyothers could step into – then it is more than worth! Saudi Arabia isnine times larger than the UK and has plenty of diversity.  The most rewarding big city is Jeddah, a cosmopolitan port with arich history. The leadingarchaeological location is Mada in Saleh – the Saudi version of Petra inJordan. Like Petra, the city was hewn from solid rock by the Nabateans. UnlikePetra, it has very few visitors – due to thestrict tourist visits till now.

Thecountry also has mountains rising to 3,000m and some spectacular highlandscenery.A real pearl is the Red Sea coastline – superb territory, with big plans to create an "independent economic zone withits own laws, taxes and regulations" close to the Jordanian borde Plans callfor an international resort zone to be developed, with a degree of greatertolerance of behaviour.

But if you want to visit all these in safe, there area lot of rules to follow again. Women should wear conservative, loose-fitting clothes as well asa full length cloak (abaya) and a headscarf. Also, all homosexual acts and extra-marital sexualrelations, including adultery, are illegal and can be subject to severepenalties.

Take care about your luggage too. Imports are carefullycontrolled.

Travel in Saudi Arabia with Penguin Travel 2

"Smugglingdrugs into the Kingdom is a crime punishable by death", say the authorities.Bringing in pork is forbidden. The possession of pornographic material, or ofillustrations of scantily dressed people, especially women, is prohibited. Youcan bring a Bible into the country as long as it is for your personal use", advices UKForeign Office. Tourism during Ramadan - theIslamic month of fasting, could be a really big  challeng, so better avoid that period.

Travelling by your own in Saudi Arabia is not advisorytoo. Except if you travel by air only.  Within Saudi Arabia, domesticaviation is well established and inexpensive; the 90-minute link betweenMedina and the capital, Riyadh, has frequent flights and one-way faresfor around $60.
Carrental and fuel are cheap, but the roads are dangerous. "Standards ofdriving are poor and there are a high number of serious accidents," warns theForeign Office.

If you wear a simple necklace with a Christ on it –this would be a big trouble. The official system of law in Saudi Arabia is Sharia. Islamic codes of moralityareenforced by the Muttawa, a volunteer organisation for the religiouspolice. Anythingthat looks like preaching or proselytising a religion other than Islam though,is treated with extreme prejudice!  The Nejd region around Riyadh isthe most strict region in all of Saudi Arabia, so be very careful to be on yourbest behaviour at all times, with Hejaz around Jeddah being somewhere aroundthe middle.

Generally, the Muttawa don't enter hotels or expatcompounds, and you should be able to relax a little more there.

In Saudi Arabia, everything runs around the five dailyprayers. More or less everything closes during each prayer for at least 20-30minutes and the religious police actually patrol the streets and send loiterersoff to the nearest mosque. So, avoid being out on the streets during theseperiods unless you want some hassle from the Muttawa.

Alcohol is forbidden and illegal throughout the country,although things are generally more lenient within residential compounds forforeign national or expatriates.  Pornography may include thingssuch as swimsuit calendars, so be careful about it. Computers, CDs, DVDs, iPods and otherportable media devices have all been seized for inspection from time to time byauthorities, and you may lose your device if it has anything deemed to beforbidden on it.

Taking photos in Saudi Arabia is another delicatemoment. Anything that's government related includingministries, airports, military facilities or looks like it could be agovernment building, don't take a photo of it. Don't takephotos of Saudi Arabian men without their permission, and don't even point acamera in the vaguest direction of women. At the best, they will smash your camerabut it is most likely to happen something worse.

Yet, once made your mind andfollow all the rules, your visit to Saudi Arabia will be soon paid off. There are great treasures and remarkablecultural heritage, hidden behind the curtain of this conservative, religioussociety. This is one of the most enigmatic and difficult places to visit and ifyou have a chance to go there – do not miss it!

Written by: Biserka Borisova

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