Surprising Saudi Arabia

Cornel Schalkwyk on 14 November 2022
In November 2022, I was honoured to be asked to visit Saudi Arabia along with several others in the travel industry. I won’t deny that I had many preconceptions before visiting and thought I knew exactly what to expect… well, I don’t mind admitting how wrong I was and how completely astonished I was by this beautiful country.

We were on an organised tour, designed to take in the main Saudi attractions. My main takeaway was the wide misconception around culture, women’s rights and what it’s like for women visiting. I found it is entirely possible for women to walk around unaccompanied, and with arms and heads uncovered. Of course, there are places and occasions when this isn’t the case and that must be respected.

Other things I noticed were that on the whole, English is widely spoken and that the people are incredibly friendly and welcoming, very open and warm - shopkeepers and stallholders in the souqs were all friendly without being pushy. I felt safer walking round the markets in Saudi Arabia than I did in Egypt. No one was calling out and it felt much more respectful. The Saudis are so proud of their heritage and country, and it’s part of their culture to be welcoming and share what they have. This is evident in their hospitality, even with complete strangers.

As a country, Saudi is quickly becoming westernised. There are some obvious cultural differences, such as separate gyms, but the more touristy areas are introducing mixed areas, and some hotels, for examples, have mixed pools. Not all of the local customs necessarily apply to tourists in the same way they do to locals. Unmarried couples can share hotel rooms which is otherwise forbidden.

A point worth noting is that there is absolutely no alcohol available anywhere. This applies from the minute you board your flight (if flying with Saudia), including in resorts and hotels, to the moment you return home. This could be a deal breaker for some travellers, but I considered it a detox and really wasn’t bothered by it on the whole.

THE FUTURE FOR SAUDI ARABIA: There is a big project underway, Vision 2030, to drive tourism. There is some feeling that the strict alcohol rules may relax a little to attract more people. But it seems a shame for the country to have to change its customs in order to become a big tourist destination. Or is that just needing to move with the times? There’s a big debate to be had here – why should the country and people feel the need to change?

The welcoming and openness of the people may also change if they get bombarded by tourists and particularly if alcohol is introduced. Just from my short visit I felt that the locals would not take well to this and their patience and hospitality might be tested. And this would really detract from the charm of the country.


My trip was very well organised and designed to show off the best attractions to recommend to customers. Here’s what we experienced:

RIYADH - the largest city and capital of Saudi Arabia. We visited Diriyah, a UNESCO Heritage Site, and the seat of the Al-Saud family, the first Saudi rulers. The site includes Al Masmak Fort, a palace built in 1895 and the birthplace of modern Saudi history. We also visited Dira Souq from where we saw the old kingdom, a real contrast to the modern architecture of sharp lines in glass and steel, including the Sky Bridge in the Kingdom Centre Tower, which offers stunning 300 metre-high views of Riyadh. And we were lucky enough to experience a traditional Saudi lunch, complete with a lesson in the historic coffee making ritual.

ALULA AND HEGRA – we drove from Medina to AlUla (c.300km) largely through the desert, frequently stopped by ambling camels. Our night’s stay was at the Shaden resort, a luxurious complex and very traditional building set amongst the ancient rocks. The chalets we stayed in were tent-like with private patios overlooking the enormous rocks. Absolutely stunning.

From AlUla we visited the city of Hegra, the Saudi Arabia version of Petra, and the second city of the Nabataean kingdom. It is a major archaeological site with a temple carved into the rocks, truly amazing. We were welcomed at the door and then left to soak in the atmosphere with no rushing in and out. It was very laid back and relaxed compared to the standard tourist experiences. We also visited Elephant Rock, which is quite a popular site. That evening we went stargazing, a massive attraction in this area, and with so little light pollution it is easy to see the Milky Way and lose yourself gazing at millions of stars. I would recommend at least 2 nights here in case of bad weather.

MEDINA – this is Saudi Arabia’s second holiest place and essential for women to cover arms, shoulders and heads. We were in the vicinity of the Prophet’s Mosque (Al-Masjid an-Nabawi), a major Islamic pilgrimage site. This was another mix of new meets old – the ancient mosque and surrounds and then modern umbrellas for sun shade. From Medina we took the Al-Haramain Express Train to Jeddah, travelling at 300km/h.

JEDDAH – we spent a lovely evening in Jeddah where we saw the local families on their Thursday night stroll by the river - Thursday in Saudi Arabia is the equivalent of our Friday. It was insightful to see them all relaxing, enjoying their time together. The next day saw us visiting the waterfront, the Jeddah Corniche, and we even had an unscheduled stop and private view of the Formula One track at Jeddah, which was awe-inspiring, as well as a surprise sunset cruise.


Saudi Arabia is an amazing place to visit. It’s an authentic experience and it is a country full of culture, history and religion - UNESCO sites, stunning architecture and fantastic climate – all without being overrun by tourists. I’d recommend Saudi to anyone looking for a genuine experience now, before it gets too crowded or over developed for Vision 2030. Without doubt it’s a high end destination, certainly not cheap, but it is very special and different.

A visit to Saudi is a very different kind of trip. If you want somewhere quiet, good food, good for families, safe for women, then it’s ideal. It would make a great twin centre with Egypt or Dubai where you could do the partying before getting a culture soak here. Or visit before 2030 to experience it in its relative naivety. Right now, it’s comfortable without feeling restricted. But that could all change if it starts to get more commercialised.