Treks through the desert, diving in the Red Sea, lush drives in the mountains — Saudi Arabia might be a country of varied faces, but until recently it was largely unknown to international leisure travelers. “It’s still a very mysterious destination,” says Daniel Ponzo, managing director of Zahid Travel Group and an Italian-Swiss expat based in Jeddah. “Nobody can believe what you can find in Saudi Arabia in terms of heritage, culture, landscape, deserts, beautiful beaches and sea.”
The fact that it’s been under the radar for so long makes Saudi Arabia ripe for travelers looking to explore lesser-trammeled landscapes, but there’s a downside: Fewer travelers before you means fewer resources available to navigate from afar. A trip to Saudi Arabia is not like backpacking across Europe, which you can prepare for by sifting through countless firsthand reviews to piece together a plan. The solution? Hire a trusted local tour guide. “It is crucial, because this is a country that needs to be explained, that needs to be discovered with someone who knows it,” Ponzo says.
From the glittering skyline and beaches of Jeddah to the ancient archaeological sites of Alula, and from the mountains of Ha’il to the deserts of the Empty Quarter to the museums of the capital city of Riyadh, there are countless ways to experience the country. A seasoned guide can tap into your interests and craft the perfect itinerary.
“Saudi Arabia is a place that has lots of interesting areas that are not known even for many Saudis,” says Meteb Almahmoud, owner and general manager of Amazing Tours. “So in order to reach those places safely and to learn about them, the tour guide is the one who will arrange it for you.” If you book a trip through reputable tour companies and destination management companies, such as Amazing Tours, Alboraq DMC and Zahid Travel Group’s Go Zahid, they’ll maximize your time by taking care of everything from arrival to departure: transfers, tour guides, hotels, activities and restaurant reservations.
The majestic Alnaslah Hill in Hofuf, Eastern Province
Al Soudah, Asir
The best tour guides do so much more than manage logistics. Often, your guide is your key to an authentic introduction to Saudi culture. “A good guide will transmit his or her passion,” Ponzo says. This is vital in a culture that has been misunderstood by so many around the world for so long, because a guide can help answer your questions and paint a true picture of Saudi life. “I think in a country that is so rich from a cultural heritage point of view, this needs to be explained by a local guide to make sure that the visitors get maximum benefit,” Ponzo says.
Tourism is a burgeoning industry in Saudi Arabia, so Ponzo recommends making your bookings as soon as possible — because everything is so new, there can be a scarcity of qualified guides. And some destinations, like Alula, are at the top of every traveler’s wish list, but limited accommodations mean that they max out quickly.
Sitting area where visitors can grab Arabic coffee, then go and explore the traditional exhibition, Bin Hamsan Traditional Village in Khamis Mushait in Asir.
Understanding the cultural norms and traditions of a country can help you feel more at home in a new environment and is always appreciated by locals. Abayas are not mandatory for women visiting the kingdom, but dressing modestly is still important. And while tipping is not mandatory, a 10 to 15 percent gratuity at restaurants and for your guides is appreciated.
Guides can also be helpful in navigating different regions of Saudi Arabia. “There are some little cultural differences between Bedouins and city people, for example,” Almahmoud says. Guides can share interesting social customs in the kingdom, such as the tradition of drinking coffee with one’s right hand.
And don’t forget that hospitality is a two-way street. “Now that the country is open, each time that they see travelers, it’s ‘welcome to Saudi Arabia!’ with a big smile,” Ponzo says of Saudi natives. Why not return the favor? “Remember,” adds Almahmoud, “smiling and greeting is the key to get to people’s hearts.”
— By Syeda Ali