Here’s another country to be ticked off your bucket list. For the first time in its history, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is opening its doors to tourism by issuing an electronic visa (eVisa) for visitors coming from 49 countries — and yes, including Malaysia and Singapore! As one of the world’s most challenging places to visit for non-Muslims, the country is now actively trying to attract visitors to discover this once-reclusive kingdom. Previously, the kingdom issued only visitor visas for religious pilgrimage and business visas. Now, tourists can apply for an eVisa at the eVisa portal.
Anyone over the age of 18 can apply for an eVisa which costs approximately RM500. The eVisa will be valid for a period of one year with an option for multiple entries and permits a maximum stay of 90 days in the country. This move is in line with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform program, Vision 2030, which aims to reduce the country’s reliance on oil and diversify its economy by way of tourism and entertainment.
The new eVisa system is a historic milestone for the country. Now, international visitors will be able to discover Saudi Arabia’s ancient sites that trace the history of mankind, its rich and vibrant culture as well as the diverse and breathtaking landscapes — from the mountains of Abha to the beaches of the Red Sea to the shifting sands of the Empty Quarter.
Already planning your trip to the Kingdom? Wait up! To attract Western tourists and market itself as a tourist destination, the country has eased some of its conservative restrictions, like granting women rights to drive and travel without a guardian, permitting unmarried tourist couples to rent hotel rooms and relaxing its dress codes. However, while they are loosening some rules, there are still a few basic and cultural tips you need to know as first-time travelers to Saudi Arabia. Read on to know the do’s and don’ts when you’re in the Kingdom.
Do: Wear modest clothing
For a conservative country like Saudi Arabia, you should dress modestly in public. Men should always wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants. While it’s not necessary for women to cover their hair and wear an abaya, wearing loose pants or skirts, and long-sleeved shirts are best, as shoulders and knees should be covered. A good rule of thumb is to avoid figure-hugging clothes with profane language or images.
Don’t: Consume alcohol and drugs
The sale, purchase or consumption of alcohol and drugs is illegal in the country. Even on the flight into Saudi Arabia, don’t expect boozy drinks. Unlike Dubai, you cannot drink in Saudi’s hotels. It’s also forbidden to bring booze into the country, so don’t even try to pack it in your luggage!
Do: Plan your itinerary around prayer times
Saudi Arabia is a Muslim country and as such, operation hours of stores and restaurants revolve around the prayer times. Although laws on prayer-time closures are relaxing, to make the most of your trip, plan your itinerary according to these times as most of the stores and restaurants will still close for prayers. If you’re visiting during Ramadan when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, it is respectful to avoid eating or drinking in public during the fasting hours.
Don’t: Take photographs of locals
It’s your first time to the kingdom, and you might be a bit trigger-happy with the camera. Hold that thought! Under the public code of conduct, photographing locals without their permission, photographing traffic accidents, crimes or other incidents is a punishable offense. You could be fined up to SAR1000 (approx. RM1115)! Other punishable offenses include vandalism of public property, playing music during prayer times, and dress code violations.
Do: Familiarize yourself with Saudi customs
When accepting something — from your hosts or strangers offering a token of their hospitality, like food or a gift, always accept with your right hand. Also, Saudis usually eat with their hands, so if you find yourself having a meal with the locals and there are no forks and spoons, always remember to eat with your right hand!
If you’re a man, avoid extending a handshake to a Saudi woman, unless she does so first. To avoid a social faux pas, place your right hand over your heart and greet with a hello. An “Assalamualaikum!” (that means “peace be upon you” in Arabic) is a common way of greeting and you may respond with “Wa-alaikum-salam” (and unto you peace).