Tourists flock to Saudi Arabia as the country opens to foreign visitors
Non-Muslims can visit the holy precinct of Medina right up to the perimeter as the kingdom implements its Vision 2030 as “a tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and moderation its method”.
Dubai: Curious international tourists are discovering an unexpected openness in a society long considered one of the world’s most conservative. Until recently, Saudi Arabia was largely restricted to business travellers, expatriate workers and pilgrims and the holy cities of Madina and Mecca were off bound for non-Muslims.
However, since the country opened to international tourists in September 2019 with the launch of its e-visa programme, things have been quickly changing.
Louise Cotton, a British woman who visited Saudi Arabia in December 2021 with a group of seven non-Muslim friends, said they were able to visit the holy precinct of Medina, right up to the perimeter fence, and openly take photos of the Prophet’s Mosque (Al-Masjid an-Nabawi).
Travelling with a UK-based tour company supported locally by a Saudi team, she said they visited religious sites outside the fence, but were told non-Muslims may not cross the gates into the mosque’s outer courtyard.
“I understand the ability to officially visit up to the fence is a recent (2021) development – we were the second group of non-Muslim to have done so with this UK-based tour operator. We were appropriately dressed – loose scarves, long skirts or abayas for women and long trousers for men,” said Cotton.
In its Vision 2030 agenda for economic and social reform, Saudi Arabia laid out a vision for “a tolerant country with Islam as its constitution and moderation as its method”. In 2019, the country announced a more relaxed dress code for women visitors, saying they no longer needed to wear an abaya or hijab. However, tourists are still expected to dress modestly.
Aida Karamesic, an American non-Muslim tourist who visited the kingdom in November 2021, marking off her 154th country, said she visited the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina after registering on the Eatmarna app. Travelling with her Muslim cousin helped as she followed her lead.
Driving towards Mecca, the two women, who had rented a car at the airport, passed through several checkpoints without being stopped and drove to the Great Mosque of Mecca (Masjid Al-Haram). While modestly dressed in Riyadh without covering their hair, in Makkah they wore hijabs and abayas.
“It was a great experience to see the largest mosque in the world which has a capacity of 4 million people. We also went to Mount Arafat,” Karamesic said in her trip report on the Facebook group Every Passport Stamp.
Saudi authorities have not made an official announcement on whether non-Muslim tourists are permitted to enter Mecca and Medina, but tourists are increasingly confirming their ability to get close to the holy sites.
Samer Kawar, a US national who visited the country in December 2021, said he didn’t encounter any issues entering Medina as a non-Muslim, where he stayed in a hotel overlooking the Prophet’s Mosque. While he was able to walk around the area outside the mosque, like the other tourists, he refrained from entering inside.
Similarly, Calvin Sun, an Asian-American emergency physician and globetrotter who runs travel community The Monsoon Diaries, reported a similar experience.
On his trip with fellow travellers, all non-Muslims, he said their local driver sailed through multiple checkpoints towards Mecca without any guard stopping them.
“Once we reached the King Abdul Aziz Gate, I knew we were at the feet of the holiest site in Islam… We even stopped to see some of the other mosques in Mecca. I’m still confused. And grateful. Something or someone was watching out for us. Or times really have changed,” said Sun, who has visited more than 190 countries.
For Ukrainian tourist Artyom Fedosov, who drove from the seaside city of Jeddah to the mountainous city of Taif, both in Mecca Province, his trip to Saudi Arabia surprised him in countless ways.
“This route is especially exciting because it passes by Mecca, which for decades had the famous sign ‘Muslims Only’, and a so-called Christian Bypass [officially known as the Fourth Ring Road] to drive past the city without entering it. My plan was to drive as far as I can, until I saw those ‘Muslims Only’ signs.
“Eventually I realised I had just passed the turn to the Fourth Ring Road and there were still no signs. I noticed the main entrance to the city of Mecca in the form of an open book of the Qur’an and got nervous since I knew it's a checkpoint where they’re supposed to stop non-Muslims from entering. But the officer just looked at me and said I can enter,” he said.
Arriving in Mecca, he asked a policeman whether he was allowed to be there as a Christian and was assured it was fine. “I was so happy that I actually forgot to ask since when things had changed. I walked freely, took pictures of the mosque and pilgrims and nobody said a word to me. I decided not to try to enter the mosque itself because I felt it was … a wrong thing to do,” he said.
He then stayed at Fairmont Mecca Clock Royal Tower in a room with a view of the Kaaba. “I discovered the ritual circling of the Kaaba never stops; people keep arriving to do it at any time. No matter if it's 3pm or 3am, there will be Muslims praying and walking around it,” he said.
The mystery surrounding Saudi Arabia, after being closed-off for decades, continues to draw avid travellers fascinated by the country’s hospitality and modernity. Besides Mecca and Medina, visitors are exploring off-the-beaten track attractions throughout a country that is home to six United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites.
Among the highlights of Sun’s trip was a visit to the 120-year-old Al Gadhi Rose Factory; the local souqs where he sampled naturally harvested honey and the Al Shafa Mountains where he visited a rose farm. In most places, his group were the only tourists, he said.
For Rus Margolin, a Belarusian who has visited every one of world’s 192 countries and who documents his adventures on travel2unlimited, his best moments included visiting the world’s largest camel market in Buraidah; climbing the mountains to Taif where he encountered baboons and seeing the heritage villages around Abha city.
Saudi Arabia has already recognised the tourism potential of secondary cities and heritage sites including Abha, Taif and Aseer and is heavily investing in mega projects to transform secondary cities into world-class destinations. In the six months to March 2020, the country issued 400,000 tourist visas – only for the global pandemic to pause that momentum when borders closed. On August 1, 2021 the country welcomed back tourists 18 months after tourism was suspended.
In 2022 Saudi Arabia aims to attract 29.5 million international tourists, a number it wants to increase to 55 million by 2030. Together with domestic travellers, the country is looking to raise the total number of annual visitors to 100 million by 2030.
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