Although the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has the largest number of tourists flocking here for prophetic reasons, a visa for non-Muslims never existed until a couple of months ago. In the wake of becoming more liberal and getting influenced by its neighbours like Dubai and Qatar, Saudi Arabia has also started to eye itself as a tourist destination.
To promote its tourism industry, for the first time in the history of the country, the government has started to issue tourist visas including e-Visas. There is a list of 49 countries that can apply for an e-Visa online. The good news is that India is soon to be included in that list. Until then you can still get a Saudi tourist visa through global VFS centres. For more information on visa requirements and procedures click here.
The million-dollar question is, with its grim records of human rights, its super conservative atmosphere and opaqueness for non- Muslims, will tourists get lured to visit such a nation? Well, there is a category of curious travellers who are always in search of the lesser known under-explored, exotic destinations. These people have already put Saudi Arabia in their list of countries to travel.
The country already has a good network of roads and basic infrastructure for domestic and Hajj travellers. After the issuing of tourist visas, the government is trying to expand its hotel industry and fund OYO rooms. Making liberal policies for foreign tourists such as non-married couples able to rent a room is surely conveying that Saudi Arabia will be leisure-ready quickly.
What’s there to see?
It is true that a major part of Saudi Arabia comprises of desert and dunes and they have their own intrigue. But, besides the desert, there are soaring mountains, coral reefs, ancient petroglyphs, azure coastline, and modern cities to explore in Saudi Arabia. Here is a list of such places that testify that this diverse land is dotted with history, culture, heritage, architecture and natural beauty.
The largest date palm oasis in the world lies in the Aeastern region of the country. Covering an area of 30,000 acres with more than 3 million trees, the date palm oasis is a visual relief to the otherwise arid landscape.
The city of Jeddah is the gateway to Mecca. Although Mecca itself is restricted only to Muslim pilgrims, the winding backstreets and spice markets of Jeddah has a lot to offer on its own. The port city was the erstwhile capital of the country. A mix of past and present on the Red Sea this city has old souqs and bustling coastline.
Overlooking the Tihama valley the country's southwest corner is lush, verdant and filled with flowers. Castles, old buildings and wildlife are shrouded in the mountains of Asir. There are several parks and noteworthy sites such as Abha and Al souda that you must visit. From Al-Souda hop on a ride on a gondola lift to the highest mountain peak of the valley.
Located close to the city of Jubbah there are rock carvings older than 7,000 years. Since these carvings are from pre-Islamic times, it is a bit of a controversial and less promoted site in the country. The site gives an impression of an open-air museum depicting petroglyphs of animals, humans and their lifestyle in the Neolithic age.
Built by the Nabateans, who also built Petra in Jordan, the archeological site of Mada in Saleh was the second largest city of the tribe after Jordan. It might not be as well-known as Petra but it is not any less visit worthy. It houses living quarters, tombs and burial sites from the ancient times.
Al Wahabha crater is a white sandy crater in the middle of the desert with salt deposits surrounding it. A perfect hike for adventure junkies with the most impressive views. The nearest city to the crater is the city of Al Taif, about 250 km away. After the 3-hour drive, the hike takes almost 2-3 from the point of entry.
Riyadh is a glimpse of the modern world and one of the wealthiest cities of the middle east, Riyadh is the capital of the kingdom. Skyscrapers, fancy diners, huge parks the city has a variety of things to explore.
Saudi Arabia is a big chunk of land, bigger than any European country, untouched, unexplored and exotic. This land has suddenly opened its doors to the western world. There might be some skepticism about its fierce laws, but for any tourist with a broader perspective and understanding of the cultural differences each country in the world has, a visit to Saudi Arabia can be a very eye-opening experience.
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