Saudi Arabia just announced that for the first time in the history of the Kingdom’s existence (89 years) they will be offering tourist visas for citizens from 49 countries including the United States. For those of us that already live here this is an exciting opportunity to share some of the amazing and unspoiled locations in Saudi Arabia with friends and family that previously would never have been allowed to visit. In the past only direct family (parents and siblings) would have been allowed to visit on family visas, meaning aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends had no way to visit unless they were Muslim and coming on pilgrimage. Now with the creation of the new tourist visa program any US citizen is eligible to apply to visit this very diverse, friendly, and unique country.
One thing Saudi Arabia has in abundance is deserts. From the massive and remote Empty Quarter covering the entire south eastern portion of the country to high deserts and mountainous regions in the south west and rocky Mars-like deserts in the northern and western regions there is always something new to discover. During the milder winter months (Oct – March) when the temperatures usually range between 70 – 90 degrees F, one of our favorite things to do as a family is go out and explore the deserts. All that is needed is four-wheel drive, slightly deflated tires, and a sense of adventure and you can create your own desert safari experience. Usually within 15 minutes of turning off the highway and into the desert you can find your own secluded area with literally no other people around for miles in any direction. While in the desert our family really enjoys going 4×4 dune blasting, sand boarding, camping, cooking hotdogs and smores via camp fire, and on moonless nights stargazing and viewing the Milky Way with zero light pollution interference.
With deserts also comes oases, and Saudi Arabia has many including the largest in the world, Al Ahsa located in the eastern region, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2018. A lesser known but perhaps even more visually stunning oasis is located in the north western region of KSA in the Tabuk Provence. Tayeb Al-Ism is located next to the turquoise waters and white beaches of the Gulf of Aqaba, and shaped by 1000-foot-high granite cliffs that enclose the narrow valley making it only accessible on foot. In the gravel base of the narrow valley is a small crystal-clear spring fed stream than runs year-round creating a series of water pools and oases of palm trees and reeds along the 2.5 mile length of the valley. Special thanks to Nawaf Abdulaziz @nawafaziz1 for sharing the beautiful picture below from somewhere within the valley.
Think Petra only larger and with way fewer tourists. Mada’in Saleh dates back to the 1st century AD and was part of the Nabatean kingdom, of which Petra (which is located in Jordan) was the capital. Mada’in Saleh was named Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 and contains over 100 rock cut monumental tombs spread out over a distance of approximately 8 miles. Mada’in Saleh is not as well-known globally as Petra, and therefore has not suffered from overtourism and many of the tombs and monuments remain in near pristine condition.
The Red Sea is considered one of the best diving locations in the world primarily because of its pristine condition, relative lack of development especially along the Saudi Arabian coastline, and unique warm water species of fish and coral. Beyond diving there are miles of beautiful sandy beaches and thousands of tiny uninhabited sand islands just waiting to be explored all along the coast. With year-round sunshine and warm weather water sports and activities such as fishing, diving, snorkeling, sailing, etc. can be enjoyed at any time during a visit.
Jeddah Old Town
In addition to the newer and more modern cities of Jeddah, Riyadh, Dammam, and future “Giga” projects like NEOM and Qiddiya (Entertainment City), Saudi Arabia has also tried to maintain some of its heritage as well. Two examples of this are the well-maintained ruins of Diriyah near Riyadh and the Jawatha Mosque (629 AD) located in the village of Al-Kilabiyah. Another interesting example of Saudi Arabia’s heritage are the beautiful architecture and historic houses in Jeddah Old Town or “Al Balad.” Al Balad, founded in the 7th century and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014, is the historic center of Jeddah and the original gateway to Makkah (“Mecca”). Within the Al Balad district are hundreds of historic buildings and houses, many of which include the distinctive “Roshan” style of using intricate wooden lattices to cover windows and balconies allowing cooling breezes to flow through the houses while at the same time providing shade and blocking the view into the homes from onlookers outside.
While this was by no means an exhaustive list of all the novel attractions and experiences Saudi Arabia has to offer potential new visitors, I do hope it at least gives a better idea and maybe different point of view on the country. For those readers that live in KSA or have visited in the past please feel free to comment and share any additional attractions or activities you feel I might have missed and we will make sure to include more details on those in future articles as well.