In my years covering the travel industry, I’ve had several opportunities to visit countries that were looking to open borders and welcome U.S. tourists. Places such as China, Vietnam, Cuba and Myanmar were at one time relatively, or completely, new destinations for Americans. But I have never had friends and relatives display more curiosity — and share such strong opinions — as I had when I told them my next trip would be to visit Saudi Arabia.
For a variety of reasons, Americans have complicated — and often hostile — feelings about “the Kingdom.”
That may soon change, however, as the country’s leadership is going all-in on developing an international tourism industry to grow economic opportunities for coming generations. An ambitious initiative led by Prince Mohammed bin Salman, called Vision 2030, is designed to help the country diversify its economy, while also offering a pathway that will enhance its position in the modern world. An expected consequence of this program will be a greater openness to the attitudes and opinions of the western world.
On my visit last month, hosted by Saudi Tourism and organized by Northstar Travel Group (the parent company of TravelAge West), I was accompanied by a group of 16 travel advisors from all around the U.S. These were men and women with a range of backgrounds — different ages, religious beliefs, races and sexual orientations — as well as varied clientele and business specialties.
Despite their differences, these agents came home with many similar impressions and reactions, and much of what they had to say addresses the issues I was asked about before and after the trip. So, here’s a look at some of those questions, and how this group of advisors might respond to them.
Is Saudi Arabia Friendly to Tourists?
It’s one thing when the leaders of a country decide that increasing tourism is in the best macroeconomic interests of a country. It’s another to see firsthand that the citizens actually want all those foreigners — and the changes they will inevitably bring — in their streets, cafes and historic sites. By far, the most common response in our group was surprise at how welcoming the Saudi people were.
“We were warmly received virtually everywhere we went,” said Lindsay Feinberg, an advisor with Belle Voyages, an affiliate of SmartFlyer. “People would randomly say ‘Welcome to Saudi Arabia,’ in passing. Locals were very curious as to where we had come from, and were eager to hear our impressions of their country. The hospitality shown to us included invitations for us to join them in their homes. It was heartwarming and felt from another time.”
Many of the advisors agreed that the friendliness of the Saudis defied their expectations.
“I would say that the best and most surprising part of being in Saudi Arabia was how friendly everyone was and how happy they were when they found out we were Americans,” said Dan Sadleir of Elite Travel and Events, Inc. “Several of us received gifts from Saudi locals after they found out we were Americans. That was a first.”
This openness to visitors was not just felt on the streets. Our group had lunch in the home of a local Saudi family, facilitated by a company called HiHome. Abdullah Al-Sadoun, the patriarch of the family, is an elderly gentleman who was once a pilot in the Saudi air force and is currently involved in national government. He shared with us how supportive he was of the opening of his country, and his hopes that it would lead to greater opportunity for his daughters (one of whom is the owner of HiHome), sons and grandchildren.
“Nobody benefits when you turn your back on the world,” Al-Sadoun said. “I’m proud of my country, and so grateful that I can now share it with others.”
What Is Saudi Arabia Like for Female Travelers?
A lot of the questions and expectations I heard before my trip had to do with how safe and comfortable our group — especially the women — would feel in the country. I must admit that prior to the trip I assumed we might get a few sideways glances for our Western clothing (although outfits that cover the knees and shoulders are highly recommended for all visitors) and colorful looks (one member of our group had green hair, for instance). But I was completely mistaken about this. Despite Saudis’ conservative appearances and mostly modest dress, many of them are savvy international travelers — and media consumers — themselves, and they are used to seeing American styles. Saudi cities are full of familiar shops and retail brands, and the people are much more open to outsiders than many of us expected.
“As a blonde female, I had a separate set of expectations, and none of them were true,” said Abbey Meyer of Sky High Travel. “I felt incredibly safe and welcome throughout our entire trip.”
It should be noted that about 60% of the Saudi population is under 30. This is a young society that is eager for change and open to differences.
Nobody benefits when you turn your back on the world. I’m proud of my country, and so grateful that I can now share it with others.
“My experience was totally opposite of what I expected,” said Aiste Stanley of Trabeona Travels.
“I felt so nervous before my arrival, but after I stepped off the plane, I was greeted by smiles, and I felt safe and welcome during the trip.”
Several of the advisors noted that the changes the country is currently undergoing have had an outsized impact on the lives of Saudi women in particular. While there is undoubtedly still a long way to go in terms of equality, women in Saudi Arabia have business opportunities that were impossible just a few years ago.
“I went into this wanting to focus on the growth of women in education and business in the country, and my experience on the trip sealed the deal,” said Sanya Weston of Your Premier Travel Service.
As an advocate for small businesses in the U.S., Weston says she is excited about the increased freedom for women in the Kingdom, which has resulted in women taking leading roles in government positions, business ownership, entertainment, retail and banking.
“Women now account for a significant percentage of the total number of the country’s entrepreneurs — with tourism leading the way,” she said. “This growth is exciting news, and I’ll be bringing a group of women to Saudi from Michigan to help bridge the cultural gap and also allow Saudi to shine as it did for me.”
Is There Enough to Do in Saudi Arabia?
Warm welcomes and good intentions are well and good, but none of it matters if visitors are bored and unimpressed with the destination. That will not be the case in Saudi Arabia. The country is rich in major historic sites, one-of-a-kind natural landscapes, exotic cultural attractions, exciting adventure activities and world-class dining and hospitality.
The advisors were by far most impressed with the destination of AlUla. Looking a bit like Utah’s Arches National Park, this desert landscape is covered by massive rock formations that provide breathtaking views at every turn. One of the must-see attractions in this area is Hegra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The ruins of this ancient city are reminiscent of Petra in Jordan — which is not surprising, because it was built by the same civilization and was part of the same trading route. Here, visitors can examine tombs built into the rock cliffs and marvel at feats of ancient engineering.
Another AlUla attraction is Elephant Rock. This rock formation shaped like an elephant has become a popular spot for music and nightlife after dark.
Finally, clients may be familiar with images of the Maraya concert hall. The building’s all-mirrored-glass facade reflects the desert surroundings, making for incredible photos that are perfect for social media.
“I did love seeing the cities, with people out and about, and learning about the country’s technological advances, but my favorite was definitely AlUla,” said Cali Stein of Embark Beyond. “The dramatic landscapes paired with new luxury hotels make this a destination that will draw a mix of adventure- and wellness-seekers alike. I know my clients will love it.”
The quaint central business district of AlUla, which features a surprisingly wide array of international restaurants and boutiques, and the view high above the valley from Harrat Viewpoint are also well worth a visit.
“AlUla was a big surprise,” said Henry Dennis of Frosch. “I had never heard of it until I saw the itinerary, and then I started seeing how many celebrities had recently traveled there. Maraya was wild. It’s unique to find a mirrored building that functions as a small concert venue with a restaurant by Chef Jason Atherton — with his multiple Michelin stars — in the middle of the desert.”
Beyond AlUla, agents also enjoyed Riyadh, the country’s capital city. Here, visitors will find the fortress at Diriyah, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as modern shopping malls and world-class restaurants.
In the coastal city of Jeddah, guests can experience a range of water-based activities, including diving, snorkeling, fishing, boating, stand-up paddleboarding and sunset cruising. Jeddah is also the historic gateway for pilgrims to Mecca, and a private tour of the city’s Al Balad area (a World Heritage Site) provides a look into the city’s fascinating past.
Should I Send My Clients to Saudi Arabia?
Ultimately, our group of advisors was there to decide if this is a destination they can sell to their clients — and in most cases, that answer was a resounding “yes.”
“The history and beauty blew me away, but ultimately I was impacted by the people,” said Tonya Matthews of Starstuff Travel. “The kindness and graciousness of the Saudi people is what drives me to want to lead a trip back to the Kingdom.”
Many of the advisors feel this is the best time for Americans to visit due to a lack of crowds at major sites.
“With the current number of tourists, the experience of visiting the major landmarks feels intimate and up close,” Belle Voyages’ Feinberg said. “It was magical, though I know that this probably won’t be the case whenever I return. There are construction cranes everywhere in Saudi Arabia, and the secret of this destination is getting out.”
Other advisors feel that with scores of new hotels being built and major infrastructure projects due to come online in the next few years, Saudi Arabia will be even better prepared for demanding foreign visitors in the future.
“What struck me the most visually was the scale of the restoration of historic areas and sites, and how well modern developments, such as Maraya in AlUla, are being incorporated into the Vision 2030 project,” said Debra Brown of SB World Luxe Travel. “I plan to return to the destination with clients and can’t wait to see all the projects at completion.”
Brown feels that Saudi Arabia should be considered a top emerging destination for luxury, adventure and immersive cultural travel. Over the next two to five years, she says, interest will soar and the pricing will follow.
Several of the advisors are already thinking about the clients who would be interested in adding this destination to their bucket lists.
“The first clientele that comes to mind is the adventurous, young traveler who wants to really ‘flex’ by checking off this rare destination box,” Meyer of Sky High Travel said.
Dennis, of Frosch, sees the destination as an extension of other Middle Eastern hotspots.
“For anyone who has been to Egypt, Jordan or Israel, Saudi Arabia needs to be on your list,” he said. “Also, anyone looking to visit an area that is yet unspoiled by hordes of tourists needs to get there fast.”
Ultimately, the destination might best be appreciated by clients who identify themselves as “travelers,” rather than “tourists.” Between the sometimes-complicated cultural differences, and the still-developing tourism network, Saudi Arabia is for the intellectually and experientially curious, says Stein of Embark Beyond.
“Saudi Arabia was the most eye-opening experience of my life,” she said. “To come to a country that was always so foreign, exotic and unknown, and to see it with my own two eyes was an unbelievable adventure. We met the kindest people, ate the best food, saw beautiful ruins that are still so well-preserved and, most importantly, had the difficult and awkward conversations that needed to be had. This is why we travel, to break down misconceptions and to meet the amazing people behind any preconceived notions.”