Saudi Arabia is opening to tourists.
The conservative, often closed-off country has announced plans to roll out a new visitor visa from April 1, 2018. When it goes live, it’ll allow travelers (including women 25 and older) to enter the country once in 30 days.
It’s part of a bold plan to boost visitor numbers – and revenue – beyond the millions of Muslims who make the pilgrimage to Mecca each year.
Also in the works are a major theme park and new resorts on the country’s Red Sea coast. So what can you expect when you travel here?
As a taster, foreigners were invited to join some 600,000 spectators during Saudi Arabia’s month-long King Abdulaziz Camel Festival in early 2018.
While heavy on the camels, the event offered a chance to sample a slice of Saudi culture and road test the experience of being in a destination that rarely appears on vacation itineraries.
Set to be repeated in 2019, it’s a good event to time a trip around.
Carnival of camels
The camel festival involves camel hair art, camel sand art, camel racing, camel beauty pageants, and hipster food trucks selling camel burgers.
“We need people outside Saudi Arabia to see how we live, to see what the camel means for us,” says Sultan Al-Bogomi, an official spokesperson of the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival.
“It’s part of our living, our parents’ living. They drink the camels, they have the meat of the camels… Saudi has a long partnership with this camel.”
Camels are judged on their dainty ears, the shape of their head, their height and color, and even their lips.
There was $57 million of prize money up for grabs.
The festival recently reached international attention for a scandal involving 12 botoxed beauty camels.
“We found some people do that to their camels, and we banned them for five years,” said Al-Bogomi. “It was just 12 camels from 26,000 camels who come here. We don’t accept that at all.”
There’s now a three-step process to weed out any potential botox behavior. It involves vets, camel experts and university pros, said Fahd bin Abdullah Al-Sammari, general supervisor of the King Abdulaziz Foundation.
“We have support from the local community,” added Al-Sammari.
“In any sport, you have [people] using injections. [It’s] the same thing with camels. People try to make them better and to convince judges they are better.
“This should not be done.”
The growing emphasis on tourism happens at a time when Saudi Arabia is changing. February marks the one-year anniversary of the conservative country allowing female-only gyms.
The government has announced plans to end a 35-year ban on cinemas, and women are being permitted to drive for the first time.
Now the government wants to attract 30 million visitors a year by 2030, up from just 18 million in 2016.
“I wish many people from foreign countries come to see how people in Saudi Arabia are changing their minds, open[ing their] minds,” said Al-Bogomi.
“And that we can live together in peace.”
About the new visitor visa
Once the visa scheme is up and running from April 1, 2018, it should allow single entry within a 30-day period.
This also applies to women of 25 and older, who will be allowed to visit Saudi Arabia in designated groups. Younger women will still be required to visit in the company of their husband or male family.
Getting to the King Abdulaziz Camel Festival
The festival is hosted in Al-Dahna, an empty swathe of desert about 90 minutes’ drive from Riyadh.
In the capital, Braira Hotels has some clean and comfortable accommodation options. The Ritz-Carlton, Riyadh’s most luxurious hotel, only just reopened. It was recently closed to serve as a prison for some 200 princes, senior officials and businessmen.
Spots worth seeing
You can see most of the camel festival in one day (just keep an eye on timings, as the beauty pageant ends in the morning and the racing starts in the afternoon).
To make a weekend of it, you could visit Saudi’s Edge of the World, or Jabal Fihrayn. This massive canyon, about 96 kilometers outside Riyadh, provides unbelievable views.
Closer still is Diriyah, a manicured old city that once was the first capital of the Saudi state.
Much farther out west from the capital is Mada’in Saleh, a 2,000-year-old ruined city with buildings carved into solid rock, not unlike Petra in nearby Jordan.
What to wear
Dress should be conservative. Men should go with long pants and sleeved shirts. Women should wear loose trousers or skirts, long sleeved shirts, and a traditional abaya on top.
For foreign women, hair covering is not necessary, but it can make the travel process more comfortable.
A good rule of thumb is to be as covered as possible. Women should pack the abaya in their airplane carry on and wear it before landing into Saudi.
Alcohol is illegal. Even on the flight into Saudi Arabia, don’t expect boozy drinks. Unlike Dubai, you cannot drink in Saudi’s hotels. It’s forbidden to bring booze into the country.
Travel warnings remain in place from several Western governments following terror-related incidents in Saudi Arabia.
The US State Department urges citizens to “carefully consider the risks of travel to Saudi Arabia” due to threats from terrorist groups or missile attacks by rebel forces in neighboring Yemen.
The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office warns that “terrorists are very likely to try to carry out attacks in Saudi Arabia.”