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What it’s like vacationing in newly opened Saudi Arabia

Since officially opening its doors to tourists from around the world in September, Saudi Arabia has been booming with Western visitors who are allowed to travel all over the country — except to the holy cities of Medina and Mecca.Valuable antiquity has been left untouched in the desert for centuries, which is why the country is considered an archaeological treasure chest.Whether it’s camping on 980-feet cliffs or snorkeling along an untouched coral reef in the Red Sea, Saudi Arabia has a lot to offer for adventurous tourists.The Kingdom published new public-decency laws for visitors, which include keeping your knees and shoulders covered, not wearing shorts, not swearing, not showing public affection, and not cutting queues.A German hotel manager at the Ritz Carlton in Jeddah says that tourists are misguided about how conservative the country is, and are free to do what they want.The of tourism in Saudi Arabia’s GDP is set to increase from three to 10 percent by 2030.Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Two young women in bikinis, one from England and the other from the US, screech with joy as they are pulled behind a speedboat on an inflatable tube. The private beach owner, Amjad, is taking pictures from the jetty with his mobile phone. A border guard with binoculars, who is positioned on top of the cliffs, has momentarily lost interest in the opposing Egyptian coastline as he observes the commotion on the rubber dinghy.

Next door, the evening prayers at the mosque begin. Some guests are snorkeling along the coral reef. As the sun sets, everybody has refreshments that consist of dates and tea on the beach.

The scenes at a seaside resort in Haql, in the northwestern tip of Saudi Arabia, seem surreal. A woman from the U.A.E, who is dressed in a traditional black Abaya, has been photographing all day. “I feel like I’m on the Truman Show,” she says.

Overnight, Saudia Arabia has opened its doors to Western tourism. The government believes this is an opportunity that was “previously missed” and will result in a great economic boost for the country. The of tourism in Saudi Arabia’s GDP is set to increase from three to 10 percent by 2030.

Since the end of September, holidaymakers from 49 countries around the world have been able to travel to Saudi Arabia. Previously, this was only possible for religious pilgrims, businessmen that came by invite, and a handful of strictly controlled travel groups. But now, Western tourists can travel all over the country — except to the holy cities of Medina and Mecca.

Even local Saudis are shocked by how fast this has happened: “We are surprised by the speed at which everything changed here,” says Sami Khiary, a tour guide who studied in Canada and says he has been waiting for this moment since 2005.

Saudi Arabia is an archaeological treasure chest

Above all, Saudi Arabia wants to attract people from China, Japan, Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia, the US, and Europe who are particularly interested in culture and history. This is because the country has remained largely untouched and is therefore considered an archaeological treasure chest. Valuable antiquity has been left undisturbed in the desert for centuries. Little has been destroyed, and much of it is now being excavated by international researchers.

In fact, Saudi Arabia is home to five Unesco World Heritage sites. One of the more impressive ones is the 2,000-year-old ancient city of Hegra, which looks very similar to the historical palace Petra in Jordan.

Mada’in Salih is one of five Unesco World Heritage sites.

The city, also called Mada’in Salih, has more than 130 monumental tombs that are the size of houses and are carved into the rock, with stairs, windows, and gables attached to them. The gates surrounding the tombs are decorated with headless eagle statues, serpents, and rosette designs.

The prehistoric art carved into the rocks is also famous: Wild animals, spears, camels, horses, and hunters all adorn the walls. But there is more: the old town of Jeddah, the medieval town of Diriyya in Riyadh and al-Ahsa, which has more than 2.5 million date palms and is the largest oasis in the world.

Camping in the desert and diving in the Red Sea

Camping in the Saudi desert is now also possible, with several travel companies even organizing overnight trips to Jebel Fihrayn, otherwise known as the Edge of the World. The site is a geological wonder and consists of cliffs that measure 980-feet tall. It can be compared to Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon in Arizona — they originate from the same geological time.

Tour guides have also been offering climbing tours to the Edge of the World, but tourists have been advised to be extra careful as there are no railings to hold on to yet.

More travel companies are now organizing trips to the top of Jebel Fihrayn.

Those who like to go diving and snorkeling can venture into the Red Sea — Saudi Arabia has a very long coastline and the coral reefs remain virtually untouched.

But while all the sites are beautiful, travelers are still worried they’re pumping money into a country notorious for oppression, human rights violations, and the ongoing Yemen conflict. Although there has been no travel warning from Foreign Offices, tourists are strongly advised not to visit the Yemeni border.

But it looks like this isn’t deterring western tourists and tour operators. According to the Saudi Foreign Ministry, more than 24,000 visas to enter Saudi Arabia were issued in the first 10 days of the opening.

The country is adopting an increasingly western lifestyle

The whole country is a huge construction site. Wherever you look, highways, new airports, tunnels, hotels, and entire resort towns are being built in the desert. The second language in the country is English but street signs are in Arabic and Latin. All communication in Saudi Arabia is digital, and flows mainly through WhatsApp, even though everyone knows that this can be easily monitored.

Upon arrival at the airport, nobody is expected to wear headscarves. The tourists that do, out of precaution, are asked to take them off for a picture at immigration.

As you leave, nobody asks who you will be picked up by, something which was common in the past. Calling a taxi or an Uber is easy and a few minutes later, an English-speaking driver picks you up. A lot of taxi drivers are teachers or students who want to earn more money as well as improve their language skills.

The rules are more relaxed than tourists think

In the newly opened cafés in Jeddah, there is no sex-segregation. Everyone sits with each other, whether it’s couples, girlfriends, families, or a group of friends. Many women are fully veiled, but there are also a few that are not. Most female tourists, however, are wearing a scarf over their heads in an effort to stand out less.

Western visitors are not obliged to wear a headscarf anymore under new public-decency laws that were rolled out shortly after the Kingdom made its travel announcement. Some of these new laws, however, do include keeping your knees and shoulders covered, not wearing shorts, not swearing, not showing public affection, and most importantly, not cutting queues.

Tourists are not obliged to wear headscarves, but must cover their knees and shoulders, according to new laws.

But what do people that live here say? Alexander Sell is a German national who is also the general manager of the five-star hotel Ritz Carlton, Jiddah, a restored luxury palace that overlooks the sea.

The hotel, which opened in 2015, has hosted international meetings, conferences, and million-dollar weddings. Political figures come and go — this morning former British Prime Minister Tony Blair walked through the entrance hall.

Sell has worked in luxury hotels in the Middle East since 2007. He held several senior positions for the Ritz-Carlton Group in Bahrain, Dubai Jumeirah Beach, and Abu Dhabi before moving to Saudi Arabia.

“It is a very special challenge. Saudi Arabia’s problem, as far as tourism is concerned, is the country‘s secrecy. It leads to only a few travelers being able to form their own opinion.” says the Berlin-born manager.

As far as public dress is concerned, he is surprised how many tourists are misinformed. “We don’t make any female guests wear headscarves because they don’t need to wear one here. Anyone who wants to wear something out of respect can wear a long, open overcoat provided by the hotel. Headscarves are not necessary anyway.”

Cities like Jeddah are changing rapidly

The religious police, which enforce public morality and religious observance, have been deprived of power for a few years now and you hardly see them. Sell has to constantly remind his guests that they can actually move around freely.

Saudi cities, especially the modern port city of Jeddah, are developing at a rapid pace. Every day there are surprising innovations raved about and d on social media. Now, Saudi women that are traveling alone can book a hotel room, for example, and unmarried Western visitors can book a double-bed bedroom.

“I have the impression that everyone here has been taken by surprise. The Saudi population is amazed,” says Sell. “It’s a sense of relief for them, both on a small scale and in their everyday life.”

40 percent of Sell’s hotel employees are Saudis, and he has to fulfill the government’s “Saudization” quota, which requires employers to hire a certain number of locals. Whether at the reception desk or as a waiter in a restaurant, young Saudis are working everywhere.

Sell’s personal assistant, Nouha Aldigs, speaks perfect English, comes from Jeddah and drives a car to work — this was only made legal for women in 2018. However, a traffic officer might still insist on talking to her legal male guardian instead of her, the driver, if she’s involved in a collision, Sell said.

Anything is allowed on the beach — except nudism

Sell’s family is still living in the U.A.E, where his two sons are attending an international school. In his spare time, he likes to go snorkeling or fishing, gradually discovering the previously closed-off country.

To visitors, he recommends three hotspots that have remained virtually untouched: the coral reefs near the ancient coastal town Rabigh, a tour through the almost 10,000-feet high Asir mountains with a visit to Muyahil where honeycombs are sold, and an excursion to the Al-Wahbah volcano crater, which is 820-feet deep  and 6,500 feet in diameter.

Driving a car was only made legal to women in 2018.

But the hotel manager has not had any time to go on tours recently. More and more people are looking for a relaxing holiday. In 2020, the hotel is thus planning to open a private beach for guests located 20 minutes away. Men and women can go, bikinis are allowed, and everything else — except, of course, nudism.

There is even a spa only for women, which recently opened in a neighboring hotel. Until now, female guests could only use the hotel’s spa in the early morning between 5 am and 7 am. After that, the spa, which includes a sauna and whirlpool, was reserved for male guests only.

Even a pool is being built for the bikini ladies, replacing a helipad. The helicopters will have to land somewhere else.