Official name: The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Population: 36 890 000
Total area: 2 149 690 km²
Saudi Arabia – tourist attractions
Saudi Arabia is a new country for travellers. Saudia was opened to tourism in 2019 and since then it has been trying to attract as many tourists as possible. When travelling around Saudi I saw that the Saudis invest a lot of time and money in tourism. Saudia has ambitious plans in this respect, although in 2022 I got the impression that tourism in Saudia is still a novelty and is in a state of initial development.
An introduction to travelling around Saudi Arabia
According to official data Saudia is visited by 20 million tourists every year, and over the next few years Saudia has plans to receive as many as 100 million annually. At the moment however it is not clear to me how many of these tourists are travellers from Western countries and how many of them are religious pilgrims from Muslim countries. In my opinion this is a huge difference in the perception of Saudi Arabia in terms of tourism. Among the many other advantages of the following countries I will now mention: in my opinion Saudia is still a centre of religious tourism, just like Turkey or Iran have ambitions to become centers of medical tourism, and Thailand is a well-known destination for sex tourism. I emphasize: among many other advantages!
Since the founding of Saudi Arabia in 1932 until 2019 only followers of Islam were allowed to visit the country. Even then, the main goals of the visitors were not to get to know the whole country but only to make religious pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina. No wonder that Saudia is still an unknown country and this was the main reason why I decided to explore it thoroughly and also describe my adventure. Saudi Arabia was quite a challenge for me, even taking into account that I had already travelled, among other places, the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan, Tibet and Iran. In Saudi it was completely different.
According to the popular opinion it is not worth going to Saudi Arabia at all because there are only: ‘desert, camels, Islam and oil; and apart from these things there is nothing in Saudi.’ Indeed, when travelilng around Saudi Arabia the landscape was mostly monotonous because there was a desert everywhere. When I travelled around Saudia and looked out the window Arabs sometimes said to me: ‘your country is green and we only have desert’. Well, if I believed in the stereotypes that in Saudi there is only a flat desert, camels, Islam and oil, there would be no point in going to KSA. However, I invested time, money and put a lot of effort into this expedition; in order to get to know the whole of Saudia.
On the other hand it is true that 95% of the territory of Saudi Arabia is covered by a desert where live about 1.6 million camels. Also, despite several places and landscapes that differ from the traditional image of Saudi Arabia, the stereotypes in this case are indeed true. As for crude oil Saudia is its largest producer and exporter. I, too, saw oil wells in the desert a few times in KSA.
As for the culture of Saudi Arabia, it is indeed based on Islam and attachment to the desert, but I was sure that there must be something else besides Islam. During my travels through so many countries I found out that often even very similar countries have unique features. However when it comes to Saudi Arabia my main motivation was to get to know a country that is completely unknown to the Western world. I wanted this adventure.
Saudi Arabia – an incentive to travel
Also, apart from stereotypes Sadia has beautiful mountains, canyons, nice beaches, very interesting and even dramatic rock formations, cliffs and even waterfalls. Saudia has also nice forts, attractive villages that form a part of an Arabian cultural heritage and impressive settlements built on top of rocks. Saudi Arabia also has carved tombs in the desert that are over 2,000 years old. At that moment it occurred to me that Muslims who only visit Mecca and Medina have no idea that such places even exist in Saudi. That is however not all because I enjoyed traditional Arab bazaars with old architecture and good food, and interesting fish bazaars (Bangala) with many species of fish that we don’t see in Europe. In Saudi I also saw several impressive mosques. Some of them are filled with interesting Muslim art and verses from the Koran and are built along promenades by the sea. There are always palm trees in such places too.
In addition, it was very interesting to watch how people cope in such extreme climatic conditions. I saw oases where people dug ditches for the flow of water to irrigate vegetables and fruit, and where date palms were a real salvation from the scorching sun. Growing bananas or lemons in the desert is quite a challenge. By the way, Saudi Arabia is the second producer of dates in the world because it collects as much as 1.5 million tons of them annually, and has as many as 300 types. These are the so-called ‘desert fruits’ which I often ate during my desert adventures. In many places the desert itself was also very picturesque, sometimes with mountains or sand dunes on the coast of the Persian Gulf. Several times I also saw herds of wild camels roaming the desert. The original attraction for me was also the way of brewing and serving Arabic coffee with cardamon from traditional Arabic jugs, usually with dates, and sometimes also in the desert under date palms.
It is important for future travellers to realize that although my story framed in nice photos is interesting, there are countries where travel is hard, tiring and a challenge for the body and mind. Especially if it’s a budget trip and if the traveller takes his passion seriously.
Saudi Arabia – a few interesting places
Saudi Arabia has many places worth seeing, although in this article I will only talk about a few. I’d like to remind that some of them are difficult to reach. Fortunately good people helped me, especially since a white man is a rarity there.
Cities of Saudi Arabia
I perceived all the cities in Saudi Arabia differently, although some of them have their own charm. Many have traditional old bazaars where you can feel like in old Arabia. Some also have fish bazaars and others are just bases near the endless desert. There are also cities in Saudi located on the Persian Gulf and on the Red Sea, and they have beaches, elegant promenades, palm trees and mosques on the shore. In winter there is a pleasant sea breeze that gives relief.
I really liked the old city of Jeddah. It was my first and successful contact with Saudi Arabia. In Riyadh I really liked the old city with the central object, which is the Masmak fortress. In Riyadh, I also drove to the top of the Kingdom Tower, which has become the symbol of Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, the capital of Saudi Arabia is huge, hot, crowded and tiring. Taif also has an elegant old bazaar and an attractive mosque. In all those places there are people who want contact with ‘people from the other world’, and that is also a great advantage of Saudi. I also enjoyed the desert city of Jizan near Yemen. There was of course another fortress with a nice view of the sea and a cultural village too. Unfortunately even in winter the heat is unbearable there. I was also in Tabuk but once again, that city has one interesting part that is worth seeing. It is of course a bazaar and an old mosque but I also saw pet shops with exotic birds and an interesting shop with traditional Arab clothes.
Usually it is also the case that most cities in Saudi Arabia are not attractive for travellers, they are very dirty and look like a third world country. Those are the districts of Riyadh where mainly live temporary workers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. No one has seen a Saudi man there for a long time.
My visit to Medina which is the second holiest place in Saudi Arabia was also a very interesting experience. I joined Muslim pilgrims from all over the world without being a Muslim myself. I got the impression that most people were from Indonesia.
One of my favorite cities was the cooler Abha in the Asir Mountains. Abha is also a starting point for cultural villages and mountain trails with herds of baboons. At the end of my trip I went to Dammam and Khobar on the Persian Gulf.
Nature of Saudi Arabia
There are places of great natural value in Saudi Arabia, the more so that they don’t fit into the stereotype of the desert. One of those places is Wadi Lajab, a beautiful canyon with red rocks, water reservoirs and waterfalls. In addition, when I was in Wadi Lajab I also experienced rural life in the desert. I was in the fields of coffee and fruit. I saw people’s attachment to their desert and culture.
One of the most beautiful corners of Saudi Arabia is also the Al Disah Canyon. Inside I saw a stream, red mountain peaks, and herds of camels and goats. There is also a picturesque desert close to Al Disah. It’s hard to get to both of those places but I assure everyone that it’s worth it.
Another place I would like to mention are the Red Dunes about 60km from Riyadh. I enjoyed that place a lot. I rode a three wheeler in the dunes and saw herds of white camels on a nearby farm. It’s easy to get there. In the vicinity of Riyadh I also launched a hard expedition to the Edge of the World, but more on that later.
In every country I’ve been to there are also unexpected, beautiful and unforgettable events – though simple and ordinary at the same time. Once in the desert I met a camel owner who let me taste milk from a pregnant camel. In addition, several times I saw herds of wild camels in the desert. That’s why you need to stay longer in the country to feel its true character.
Many cities also have very attractive beaches. They are in Jeddah, Dammam, Kobar and my favorite in Khafji. Unfortunately only a few people would go to Khafji because it’s a small town located 5 km from Kuwait. If someone does not intend to go to Kuwait he would not be in Khafji, which is a pity because the beach is long and wide and fishermen pull out large specimens from the sea.
While in Jizan I also took the ferry to Farasan Island. There I saw nice beaches, desert of course, but also a unique phenomenon for Saudi Arabia which were mangrove forests. So Saudia amazed me with its natural diversity and yet there is supposedly: ‘only desert, oil, camels and Islam’.
Historical attractions of Saudi Arabia
When it comes to the cultural and historical heritage left by the ancestors, the biggest attraction of Saudi is Al Ula and the nearby Hegra, i.e. tombs in the desert left by the Nabataean civilization. I wrote about this before in my chapter on Jordan. Hegra is a unique place that is still developing. There are, among others, fruit plantations in the desert and a very attractive Elephant Rock.
There are also cultural villages in Saudi, some of which are located in picturesque surroundings. In the vicinity of Taif I went to the wonderful Thee Ain, a fortified village on a huge rock. There was also a waterfall, banana plantation and baboons. In the vicinity of Abha I went to the wonderful cultural village of Rijal Alma, which is the best-known tourist attraction in Saudi. Near Khamis Mushait there are small and interesting cultural villages with old houses and herds of goats. There are always people who provide yet another experience.
A Saudi adventure for the persistent ones
No one will know how much effort, health and money this trip cost me. I doubt anyone realizes my cold and hard nights in the desert and how hard it is to walk through the hot desert, counting how much water I have left. In Saudi howeve I didn’t experience a sandstorm like earlier in Jordan, on my way to the Dead Sea. I was also in the hospital once. There are of course those who land in Jeddah, see the old bazaar and then go to see the tombs in Al Ula. They are tourists, not travellers. I dedicate my work to adventure travellers.
Further part of the article in preparation.
Tourist visa: Saudi Arabia is a new and unknown tourist destination which from the beginning of its existence was closed to followers of religions other than Islam. Saudia has been open to non-Islamic visitors since 2019. Saudi Arabia has finally opened up to the world and has ambitiously begun to promote tourism in its desert kingdom.
You can apply for a visa to Saudi Arabia at www.visitsaudi.com. This Saudi government website is very professional and contains a lot of information that the adventurous traveller needs. Here you can find topics such as: planning a trip to Saudi Arabia, some of the most interesting places in Saudi Arabia that are worth seeing, all information and a visa application form.
In the ‘Apply for eVisa’ section there is information about three types of visas but I’m going to talk only about the tourist visa. My visa is a 1 year multiple entry tourist visa with a maximum stay of 90 days. The price of the visa also includes health insurance, which was very useful to me. Saudia granted me a visa within 5 minutes after sending the application, although it could be up to 30 minutes. I paid 535 SAR for my online visa, which is approximately 116.5 British Pounds. Yes, it is very expensive but I decided to take up the challenge.
There is also a visa issued directly at the airport which costs 480 riyal (£104.5). It’s a bit cheaper but I preferred to have a guaranteed visa to Saudi before I bought the flight.
I warn that the negative decision is most often caused by posting an inappropriate photo or incomplete information. I advise you to fill out the form well because in the case of a negative decision there is no refund.
It should be also remembered that each day spent in Saudi beyond the allowed 90 days costs the deliquent as much as 100 riyals (almost £22). All citizens of Europe and North America and a few others can apply for a visa online at www.visitsaudi.com or at any border crossing. Poles and Brits are therefore warmly welcomed by Saudi Arabia for the blood pressure-raising amount of over £100.
Safety: Saudi Arabia is safe for tourists. The people are nice, very helpful and hospitable – beyond my wildest expectations. I saw that people were genuinely happy that I came because a white man from Europe is a rare species among them. They are curious about what I have to say, they look for information from the world and offer countless good Arabic coffee with cardamom. I have a very good opinion of the Saudis. Traveling around Saudi Arabia, despite that it is a difficult challenge through hot desert, and has high prices; because of the people it was easier and more pleasant for me, for which I thank them.
Government websites of course scare us to be careful because in Saudi Arabia there is a high threat of terrorism and missile attacks on human settlements. There are also neighborhoods, those inhabited by immigrants from the Indian Subcontinent and North Africa, that are dangerous. Indeed, many of those places impact imagination, but I travelled all over Saudia and I always felt safe. For comparison, I believe that the ‘culturally enriched‘ districts and now even entire cities in Europe, USA or Brazil are very dangerous. In my opinion, the most dangerous thing in Saudi Arabia is heat.
Getting around the country: There is a well-organized bus network in Saudi. The government website where you can check all connections, travel times and prices is https://www.saptco.com.sa/. Buses however only reach the main cities and not the places attractive for tourists. For travellers this is a problem, that’s why they have to use taxis or hitchhike, or they have to rent a car. For Saudis such transport is enough because most of them have cars, but for travellers who want to get to know Saudi Arabia well, certainly not. I didn’t use the trains, but they are more expensive than buses.
I flew the national airline KSA: Saudia a few times and I have a very good opinion of that carrier. Please check https://www.saudia.com/. There is also a low-cost airline serving cities inside Saudi: Flynas https://www.flynas.com/en. In my opinion, if a flight with Saudia is the same price as Flynas, then Saudia would always be a better choice.
Also, on the one hand transportation in Saudi Arabia is well developed but travellers have to work hard to reach all the worthwile places. For example there is no bus to the heritage town of Rijal Alma or to the magnificent canyon with waterfalls Wadi Lajab. I saw a lot because I travelled on my own. If I counted only on public transport I would never see beautiful canyons, camels crossing the desert and many other places that are not even in travel guides. From my own experience I know that crossing Saudi Arabia is a big challenge.
Prices: (for 2022 when £1 = 4.6 SAR). The price of the Saudi riyal is close to the Polish zloty, but it does not reflect the cost of travel around Saudi. I regret to say that Saudi Arabia is not a budget destination, so if someone wants to experience a cheap Arabian adventure, I recommend other countries where there is also a desert, sights, art and good food. Unfortunately all the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, except Yemen, are expensive or very expensive. The visa itself costs £116 what means that your financial journey in Saudi begins before you enter the country. I travelled on a small budget, often sleeping in a tent in the desert and hitchhiking, but I spent a lot anyway.
For the cheapest hotels I usually paid 100 riyal, sometimes 120 riyal, and once exceptionally 60 riyal. Nights in the cold and hard desert were free, but waking up in heat and sand became more and more difficult with time, what only intensified the effort of this trip. In Jeddah for 3 nights in the cheapest hotel I paid 240 riyal, while in Medina 120 riyal . But then I found a very low class hotel for 100 riyal. In Jizan I also paid 100 riyal for the hotel. It must be assumed that each night in a hotel usually costs around £20, although you can sometimes find one for £15. I remind however that this is the poorest option. Fortunately the desert in Saudi is huge so there is plenty of space to set up a tent for free; but it’s not always possible.
Saudi Arabia is the ’empire of oil production’, that’s I thought that at least transport would be cheap, but unfortunately in Saudi it is rarely cheap. I believe that for Saudi conditions transport in this large country is still reasonably priced. I paid 40 riyal for the bus from Abha to Beish, although not much further because from Abha to Jizan it would be 72 SAR. From Riyadh to Dammam I paid 92 SAR (6h). The same route by train would cost me 120-135 riyal (4h). From Dammam to Khafji (5km from Kuwait) I paid 105 SAR for a 4-hour ride. From Jeddah to Taif (3h) I paid as much as 67 riyal. For example, I paid 100 riyal for a shared taxi from Taif to Al Baha. When it comes to short distances I paid 30 riyal from Abha to Jebel Sooda. Hitchhiking works quite well, although it is not a way to explore Saudia. It’s boring along the way: a desert, a few palm trees and uninteresting buildings.
I travelled by plane a few times because the bus trip would take 22 hours instead of 2 hours and the cost would be slightly lower. From Jizan to Medina I paid 253 SAR which is about £60, so it was a good price. For the flight from Tabuk to Riyadh I paid 415 riyal, which is about £90.
Eating out is the cheapest of it all. I paid 12 riyal for biryani with rice in a Bengali restaurant. The national dish of Saudi Arabia is ‘kabsa’ which is chicken with rice. I paid 14-18 riyal on average. For an average but good meal in Riyadh I paid 25 SAR. A kebab costs between 7 and 18 riyal, depending on size and quality. Of course you can also buy ‘desert fruits’ (dates), of which there is a huge abundance in Saudi. I paid 10 riyal for a small box. There are many food, fruit and sugarcane juice stalls in Saudi that cost around 5-8 riyal. Tea and coffee are usually 1 SAR, but wherever I went people offered me Arabic coffee with cardamom and dates. It is part of the Saudi culture. Besides, a white man is rarely seen in Saudi as the country is just opening up to tourism. Therefore treating me that way was a way of learning something about life outside their previously closed country. For example a Bangladeshi taxi driver took me from Riyadh to the red sand dunes for 100 riyal (about 60km) and I hitchhiked back for free.
Since Saudia is not a budget destination, how to travel this unknown, until recently inaccessible country? Note – I give advice to ambitious travellers, not occasional tourists. I think it would be the cheapest to go in a group of 4 people and rent a car. When I was in Saudi, a litre of petrol cost only 2.3 SAR and you can rent a car for $25-$50 a day. You should sleep in tents in the desert and sometimes take a cheap hotel. It would be cheaper but it wouldn’t be cheap, and I wouldn’t call it travelling but survival. That’s not what it’s all about.
If someone doesn’t have the right budget for Saudi Arabia and would like to have an adventure in an Arab country that has a rich history, beautiful nature and much lower prices, I recommend Egypt or Jordan. Unfortunately all countries in the Arabian Peninsula are expensive. Of these Saudia is by no means the most expensive. You can experience a price shock in Kuwait or Qatar, but those countries are at least small.
Climate: Saudi Arabia has an arid desert climate, which means unbearable heat and very little rainfall. In summer the temperature in the Saudi desert reaches up to 55°C. However, it should be remembered that each desert is characterized by huge temperature differences. During the day it can be 47°C-52°C, while at night, in winter it drops below zero. I know from experience that life in the desert is extremely hard for this reason alone. First I felt like in a frying pan, then because I froze at night I was unable to fall sleep, and then I was woken up by unbearable heat.
In July Riyadh can be as high as 43°C, in October the temperature in Riyadh varies between 21°C and 35°C, and in December it is around 13°C-21°C. In Jeddah the summer temperature reaches up to 40°C, even though the highest recorded temperature reached as much as 47°C. The holy city of Muslims Mecca, built in the hot desert, easily reaches 48°C. I travelled in October and November when it was cooler but still very hot for me. The climate was particularly unpleasant in the south, in the city of Jazan near Yemen. The temperature there is warm and dry even in winter. At the end of October, it was almost 40°C during the day. The streets were empty and the Arabs were very surprised that I went to see the fort during the day.
In my opinion the most pleasant region of Saudi Arabia is the city of Abha lying in the Asir Mountains, which lies at an altitude of 2270m above sea level. Abha and the Asir Mountains are popular with Saudi tourists precisely because of the lower temperatures. Asir is a picturesque mountain area of Saudi, but imagine what kind of country it is if tourists go there not because of the views but to escape the heat. The average temperature in Abha in January is around 8°C-13°C and in July 17°C-23°C. Sometimes there were weather extremes between 0°C and 40°C, but this is rare. (Source: Jeddah Regional Climate Center).
The climate throughout the Arabian Peninsula should be taken very seriously as it is dangerous. Life in Saudi begins around 4 pm when the worst heat fades away. Before that walking in the street is impossible for most, even for local Arabs, which is why most shops are closed. All buildings are air-conditioned, what offers escape from the heat. In addition, about 10,000 construction workers from India and the Philippines die of overwork and heat each year in the Gulf countries.
Rainfall in Saudi is extremely low, but that’s to be expected. On average it is 150mm, but in the desert it is 100mm or less. The exception is the south-western region, in the Asir Mountains where rainfall is the highest. It is between 400 and 600mm per year. I know this data doesn’t say much, so I’ll put it differently. Annual rainfall in Jeddah is only 65mm and in Riyadh 75mm. In Saudi Arabia there are only 17 days a year when the precipitation is greater than 0.1mm, and in June and July in Riyadh it does not rain at all. (Source: http://www.riyadh.climatemps.com/) Rain in Saudi Arabia is a huge event.
For comparison, the average rainfall in Poland is 600-800mm per year and in England 800-1400mm.
I advise to wear long linen trousers, long-sleeved shirts with collars and definitely a hat and glasses. It is also important to use sunscreen number 50 and constantly drink water. The most important thing in a backpack is water, so if there is no room for it, this means that it should to be emptied. In the desert water takes on a completely different value, and 95% of Saudi Arabia is covered with desert, where about 1.6 million camels live. Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a single river and not a single lake. I fear that the time will come when water in Saudi will be more valuable than oil.
Due to the hot dry climate I think that white people adapted to low temperatures and rain can go to the Arabian Peninsula from December to January, but taking into account the short days in these months I think that the optimal time is also from October to February. I can take responsibility for this advice. If a white man wants to go to Saudi, Kuwait or Bahrain in the spring and summer months I don’t stop, but in my opinion such a man is getting ready for self-torment. Traveling during this time simply misses the point because the fire from the sky burns mercilessly and most days everything is closed anyway. I’m sure the Arabs would have exactly the same warning about winters in Poland.
Someone could say that he was in Thailand and it was also 40°C, so I’m probably exaggerating? For that reason I draw your attention to the huge difference between a hot dry climate and a hot humid one. In Southeast Asia 40°C has nice companions in the form of a pleasant wind and monsoon rain, while in the Arabian desert there is only a burning fire from the sky that stands still.