Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to fling open its doors to foreign tourists has sent a mild ripple of excitement running through the travel industry. A vast and hitherto largely closed country is now there to be experienced.
So what exactly is there to see in Saudi Arabia? Why go at all, in fact? It’s hardly a budget destination like South East Asia, it’s blazingly hot for eight months of the year, there is no political freedom, no free speech, no alcohol allowed, very little mingling of the sexes and – like several other countries in the Middle East – it has a much-criticised human rights record.
Well the first thing to note is that Saudi Arabia is far more diverse in landscape and scenery than you might imagine.
Yes, geographically, the bulk of the country is desert but then there are the soaring, juniper-clad, 3,000m- (9,900ft) high mountains of the Asir in the south-west, the azure reefs of the Red Sea, the date palm oasis of Al-Hofuf and the winding backstreets and spice markets of Jeddah.
I’ve been lucky enough to travel around much of the country most years since the late 1980s – Saudis often joke that I’ve seen more of their country than they have – so here is a shortlist of my favourite places to visit.