06 JAN 15 UPDATE: No Tourist Visas After All for Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is not quite the hermit kingdom of North Korea, but it remains an elusive destination, difficult to enter and currently impossible to be an official tourist in outside of a narrow exception for Hajj or Umrah travelers. That changes this summer, as the Kingdom has announced that tourist visas will be issued beginning in June 2015.
I visited Saudi Arabia in late 2012 on a transit visa granted by the Saudi Embassy in Washington, DC. In November 2013, Saudi Arabia stopped issuing transit visas in the United States, signalling a move to make visiting the Kingdom even harder.
But the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) has smartly realized that even the sandbox of Saudi Arabia is filled with culture and the Kingdom is missing out in millions, perhaps billions, of tourist and conference dollars each year by maintaining such a strict visa regime.
Jeddah was a great city — the Park Hyatt there was spectacular and with cheap airfares on SkyTeam member Saudia to destinations around the globe, a stop for a few days in Saudi Arabia on the way or way back from a trip is worthy of consideration.
Details are not out yet — will a tour guide be required like Iran requires for Americans traveling in the Islamic Republic? Will the holy sites of Mecca still be off-limits? Will the Kingdom allowed female tourists to drive or sit with male friends in restaurants?
While money may be at the root of this change, the cultural shift is noteworthy and I am hopeful that the this change in visa policy will mark the start of a cultural liberalization in which minority religions do not have to practice in secret and women may make the choice whether to travel alone or without religious garb. But one step at a time…the tourists visas are a start.
Saudia Arabia will likely never be like Dubai, Qatar, or Abu Dhabi in terms of a world mega-hub city, but I certainly recommend a visit. Peruse my trip report below for a look at Jeddah, the Park Hyatt Jeddah, and Saudia:
Read More > Review: Park Hyatt Jeddah
Read More > Pictures from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Read More > How to Obtain a Saudi Arabian Transit Visa
Read More > New York JFK to Jeddah in Saudia Economy Class