The closed corners of the world continue to open.
Saudi Arabia has long allowed entry only to those traveling on work or visiting holy sites. No more. The reclusive kingdom plans to begin extending tourist visas in 2018.
The party responsible for the policy reversal? The enigmatic Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. Yes, the same guy who recently jailed dozens of corrupt high-level Saudi officials in a Ritz-Carlton.
This mandate is the latest affirmation of his commitment to a national rebranding, tracing back to the “Saudi Vision 2030” he unveiled over a year ago. That ambitious plan, which proposes a new $500 billion metropolis, 100 miles of Red Sea resort development and even a freaking Six Flags, aims to eschew the nation’s dependence on oil and diversify the economy. In other words: close the gap a bit on Dubai.
And Salman could really use your help to make it all happen.
Naturally, you might not feel so inclined, and for good reason: the State Department warns of random, violent terrorism in several Saudi cities, while the Saudi government has recently violated human rights with its unlawful involvement in the Yemen conflict, launching unlawful airstrikes on civilian homes, hospitals and schools. Not to mention, there’s the state’s infamously suppressive treatment towards women — who were only allowed to start driving as of two months ago.
But without outside influence and a more fluid exchange of ideas with foreigners, how can we expect things to ever improve?
So we prefer to think of the oil-rich kingdom as a kind of goldmine for the intrepid traveler: a crossroads of Antiquity and modernity where archaeological wonders and sacred Muslim sites abut gleaming cities and postcard beaches.
And to help you plan your trip, we've compiled a short list of must-visit spots below.
Roll back the clock a couple millenia at Madian Salah ...
Saudi Arabia’s answer to Al-Khazneh. Or Pompeii. Once the second-largest city in the Nabatean Kingdom and the center of a spice trade built on Frankincense and myrrh, Madian eventually fell to the Romans in 106 AD. Today, there remains a preserved desert necropolis, with red rock-cut tombs and intricate Aramaic carvings.
Try some Red Sea snorkeling in Jeddah ...
Jeddah is labeled Saudi’s “most open city.” Considering a Victoria’s Secret branch opened earlier this week, it’s not hard to see why. The Red Sea city has theme parks, the tallest fountain in the world, shopping malls, and hundreds of miles of beautiful (empty) beaches perfect for scuba diving.
Discover modern architecture in Riyadh …
The nation’s governmental and economic capital, with a population of six and a half million and some zany-lookin’ buildings. Capital Market Authority, Burj Rafal and Kingdom Centre make up a skyline that could’ve appeared in those Star Wars remakes, while the KAPSARC, a honeycomb-styled energy research center, just opened its doors.
Pack extra water for a desert adventure in Rub’ al-Khali …
Also known as the Empty Quarter. Introducing: Sand. For as far as the eyes are willing to see. The Rub’ al-Khali is a contiguous desert as large as France. Take a camping convoy tour to properly (and safely) appreciate an underrated natural marvel.
Explore a 15th century fotress at Dir’aiyah ...
A UNESCO World Heritage Site — along with Madian Salah — that’s easy to get to from Riyadh, and an opportunity to understand various eras of Saudi Arabia. The At-Turaif District at Dir’aiyah was the Saudi Dynasty’s first capital, and though its role changed over the centuries, the otherworldly desert palaces remain largely intact.
Take in the holiness of Medina … (and Mecca, if allowed) ...
In Islam’s “Holy City Power Rankings,” two spots reign supreme: Mecca and Medina. Mecca plays endgame to the Hajj, a holy pilgrimage required of all able-bodied Muslims. The city — where Muhammad was born and received his first revelation — holds the sacred Kabaa, and serves as home to two million full-time residents. The population increases an incredible three times that number during the Hajj. This whole deal’s off limits to non-Muslims, actually, but if you can’t make it in, Medina also has its share of wonders. The Al-Masjid an-Nabawi, (a mosque built by Muhammad), the Quba Mosque and the Hejaz Railway Museum are all top picks.