For the first time in its history Saudi Arabia has started to issue eVisas for tourism to people from 49 countries. In addition, it has relaxed its dress code and allowed single women over the age of 25 to travel alone.
I’ve always wanted to travel to Saudi, which predates my Arabic studying days. Back then I used to search for ways to get a transit visa to Saudi, and always stumble upon stories in which women couldn’t get a taxi or check into a hotel alone. So when I saw the news that Saudi finally opened up for tourism, I applied my visa and booked tickets right away. Since the tourist visa program only started in October 2019, there is still a lack of adequate tourism infrastructure, such as tour operators and public transportation. I tried my best to search for resources, everything from googling and searching hashtags on Instagram. Fortunately I was able to find several interesting activities.
If you want to explore Saudi Arabia at some future point, here are my experiences and tips.
Saudi is safe. The fact that it’s under Sharia law and even small crimes have heavy punishments makes it very safe for solo female travelers. I walked around by myself in Riyadh and Jeddah, and not once I was harassed or cat called.
Local women are still required to wear abayas but as a foreign woman, I can basically wear whatever I want as long as I cover my knees and shoulders. A headscarf is not required, but I wore one on the first day during my trip because I wanted to try out new styles. Soon after that, I got tired of it and stopped wearing it for the remainder of my trip. I mostly wore jeans and yoga pants with a tank top, then a shirt outside, and it was totally fine.
The water used in Saudi is mostly desalinated sea water, which has a weird taste but drinkable. I drank mostly boiled tap water but you can also buy bottled water (I try to use less plastic).
Interaction with Local People
Saudi people are among the friendliest I’ve ever met. Unlike in Egypt and Tanzania, in which people try their best to scam tourists out of their money, Saudis are just proud of their country and want you to have a good time there. On the first day of my trip, a stranger showed me around a historical site, explained the portraits of their kings and pointed me directions to their souqs. In Egypt, a person would be like, “a small tip, 20 dollars.”, but this stranger just left afterwards, wished me a nice day and said “welcome to Saudi Arabia”. A lot of random strangers on the street, or the tour guides I hired for a day trip often asked me if I’m there for business, and when I replied, “it’s for tourism”, they were all very surprised. Since Saudi never really had tourists in the past, except for Hajj and Umrah (Islamic pilgrimages), locals are generally happy to see foreign tourists, some even want to take pictures with me.
Saudi is vegan friendly like New York City, there are a lot of Indian restaurants that serve vegan food, and whenever I went to a coffee shop and asked for vegan milk, there were multiple options like soy, almond and coconut. A lot of cafes and casual restaurants have falafel, either with a platter or as a sandwich.
At the end of my trip, as I was riding in a Uber alone on my way to the airport, I thought about an old thread on TripAdvisor, the one in which a female traveler had a layover in Riyadh and she wasn’t allowed to leave the airport because she didn’t have a male guardian. Things have certainly changed, and today women can travel in Saudi Arabia alone without any problem. There has been great progress towards becoming a more moderate country, as well as improvements towards women’s rights. Even though Saudi is not comparable to western countries, I’m still amazed at how far they have come, and hopeful that more people will travel to Saudi and discover its beauty and hospitality.