Unless you are a Muslim and on your Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina, or an expat working for the oil industry, Saudi Arabia is about as easy to get into as North Korea for a tourist. This oil-rich Kingdom of rolling sand dunes and empty spaces, harbours the two most important Islamic places in the world, Mecca and Medina. For Muslims it is compulsory to visit Mecca at least once in their lives, if means permit. Millions do, every year, during Hajj season. For non-Muslims both places are out of bounds, and possibly therefore hold a mysterious appeal for many. It is unwise, however, to try and sneak in, though a few bold adventurers of yore have managed to do so.
So what are the options for non-Muslim tourists who want to visit?
Option one: a transit visa. Chances of getting one: very close to, but not quite, zero. If you want to try this route you will need lots of luck, combined with lots of patience and a very good story! How: go to the Saudi embassy in your country, tell them you are afraid of flying or concoct some other plausible reason for having to travel overland. Ask for a transit visa. Pray (preferably to Allah)! If you are very, very, very lucky and the ambassador is very, very, very generous and kind, you will get your transit visa. More likely, after a lot of time and frustration, you will end up with zilch!
Option two: take a tour. Chances of succeeding: unclear. Price: expensive. But, on the up side, you will be able to see this enigmatic country, except of course for Mecca and Medina. Boohoo! There is still plenty left to see though. From the Empty Quarter to the Nabatean tombs at Madain Saleh (the same folks who built Petra), to the green mountains of Hijaz, throw in some pristine diving and you have plenty of reason to spend some of your hard earned cash on visiting this nation.
Highlights from Saudi Arabia
- If you are a Muslim go on the Hajj, not just because it is compulsory, but simply to see and experience Mecca and Medina.
- Go to the port of Jeddah, it is different than the rest of the country, both in people and in atmosphere
- Visit Madain Saleh and its Nabatean tombs
- Dive the Red Sea at the Farasan Islands
- Watch the sun set over the Empty Quarter with its mesmerizing sand dunes as far as the eye can see
- See what money can buy in Riyadh
- Understand more about oil in Dhahran
- For a taste of Yemen, head to Najran with its unique architecture and culture
- Buy some rosewater and roses in Taif, or simply hike around the surrounding mountains
- Drive around the Qassim region, with the beautiful towns of Buraidah and Unaizah
Hints and Tips for Saudi Arabia
- If you decide to try for a transit visa, beware that even if you eventually manage to get one, more often than not, it will only be valid for 48 hours or perhaps 72, which is enough to get you by bus or car from Jordan to one of the Gulf states, but not for any kind of sightseeing. Some extraordinary lucky folks have succeeded in getting 7 day or even 10 day transit visa’s, but the chance of getting that is about as big as winning the lottery!
- Saudi Arabia is an extremely conservative Muslim country, so forget alcohol, bacon and ham, forget shorts, forget nightclubs. As a woman forget driving and wear a headscarf. And be careful in the way you speak about Islam.
- Whether or not you will be able to get on a tour and go to Saudi Arabia is unclear these days, tourist visa’s are non-existent and organized travel tours were stopped some time ago. Study tours seem to be available, or in other words, tourism in the guise of studying some aspect of the culture of the country. The prices however are outrageously expensive, in the range of 8000 dollars for two weeks. Apart from that it is unclear if this is something that is going to last or a one off thing.
- Best time to visit is from late October till early March, when temperatures are cool and comfortable.