My super-friendly guide in AlUla. Photo Credit: Lindsay Feinberg
Lindsay Feinberg, a U.S.-based travel advisor, shares her perspectives and experiences from a recent familiarization trip to Saudi Arabia.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain
I was the type of kid who—having heard that this and that culture typically didn't get along or thought less of one another—would take it upon myself to try and challenge those stereotypes. “So-and-so’s religions don't like each other?” I wanted to understand the logic behind the ‘whys’ and change them into ‘why nots,’ if that makes sense.
I have long been curious about and mystified with the Middle East, probably not unlike many other Westerners. But if I'm being honest, my fascination took a more personal turn when I learned relatively later in life that I, Lindsay Feinberg, a Jew, had Muslim ancestors. The Bin Ali's of Istanbul were very religious and devout, and they even made their Hajj (an obligatory, extended pilgrimage that all Muslims are expected to undertake at least once in their lives) to Mecca. I personally take immense pride in being a product of all three religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
A Firsthand Saudi Arabia Experience
A few months ago, I was hand-picked by the Saudi Tourism Authority to join an educational familiarization trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia with about 18 other Travel Advisors from across the U.S. I could not respond “yes” quickly enough!
Having previously visited Oman once and the UAE twice, I was excited to add more Middle Eastern countries to my list, as my experiences in each destination were positively life changing. That said, never in my wildest dreams did I think Saudi Arabia would warmly open its borders to tourists outside of Hajj/Umrah and business-related purposes. In 2019, however, that all changed, and the Kingdom began to allow people from 49 countries to enter the country for tourism, for stays as long as three months. The visa program is an aspect of an economic reform plan introduced by Prince Mohammed bin Salman (a.k.a. “MBS”), to lower the kingdom’s dependence on oil.
When I initially started posting about this journey—even prior to my departure—I was concerned that I'd get negative feedback and, quite possibly, a few ‘unfollows.’ Like everyone else, I am well aware of the stigma, especially being both a female and a Jew. That said, my observation was that most folks who I told or read where I was headed were fascinated. Not judgmental! Because here’s the thing: You can't put an entire religion, country, affiliation, culture, etc. into one bucket and label it/them as ‘all bad’ or ‘all good.’ That's completely unfair, as it’s certainly not true. I love what Anthony Bourdain said ahead of his own arrival back in 2008: “Is there a country in the world about which Americans are more ignorant or less sympathetic than Saudi Arabia?”
The journey via Saudi Airlines from Washington D.C. to Riyadh could not have been more lovely or smooth. (All of my flights were generously procured by the Saudi Tourism Authority; I opted for an out-of-pocket upgrade to Business Class for each of the long-haul legs of my journey.) The service, cabin and seat comfort, and cuisine were second to none; the latter far exceeded what I had experienced aboard both Emirates and Turkish Airlines’ Business Class, both world-famous for their food product. And the mocktails? Wow. The freshly squeezed juices, herbal tinctures and infusions, and banana/date smoothies were wickedly delicious. Dare I say that I didn't miss alcohol...that much?
Lindsay Feinberg, Belle Boyages Photo Credit: Lindsay Feinberg
Belle Voyages is excited to arrange your travel to Saudi Arabia, including leading bespoke group tours. Please reach out to learn more about this exciting new destination, especially what's to come with the highly anticipated Red Sea Project!
Contact Lindsay Feinberg, Luxury Travel Designer + Gilded Concierge Services at Belle Voyages, an affiliate of SmartFlyer, a Virtuoso member
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A Journey Beyond Expectations
Over the course of my trip, these were the observations that stood out and resonated the most:
• I felt 100 percent safe. 200 percent of the time. There is virtually no crime in the country, as harsh sentences prevail.
• There is SO. MUCH. HISTORY.
• Almost everywhere you go, you are welcomed with a thimble of Arabic coffee and a plump, locally grown date.
• We were warmly received virtually everywhere we went. “Welcome to Saudi Arabia,” people would randomly say with a smile in passing. Locals were very curious as to where we had come from and were eager to hear our thoughts and impressions of their country. “Do you have plans for coffee/lunch/dinner? Come join us!” The hospitality shown to us newcomers, including the open invitations for us to join them in their homes, was heartwarming and ‘from another time.’ Can you imagine that happening in present-day U.S.?
A warm welcome with Arabic coffee. Photo Credit: Lindsay Feinberg
• Every city/town in which we visited and/or passed through was relatively graffiti- and trash/debris-free (no cigarette butts, litter, old furniture strewn in random places, etc.).
• As a germaphobe who is easily grossed out, I was completely blown away by the consistently squeaky-clean restroom facilities. Most stalls are serviced after each use —it was truly unbelievable.
• Bidets are a thing. And they are available in every hotel, plus more public restrooms than you could ever imagine.
• Souvenirs, on the other hand, are not a thing. Meaning that you'd be hard pressed to find a lighter that says “I Love Riyadh,” or even a “Ritz Carlton Jeddah” ball cap. That said, I suspect this will change very soon with the growing influx of visitors.
• There are construction cranes everywhere. “Vision 2030” is making some serious headway!
• With more important historical sites vs. the current number of tourists, the experience of visiting these landmarks felt quite intimate and ‘up close.’ You could literally either touch—or get very near—fortresses/carvings/etc. It was magical, though I know that this probably won’t be the case upon my return, as ‘the secret’ of this up-and-coming destination is getting out.
• The old towns and fortresses were built out of clay and mud and resemble the adobe dwellings that we see in the southwestern part of the U.S.
• Prior to the discovery of oil, Saudi Arabia's economic structure was limited, and most of the population was engaged in nomadic herding and agriculture (date palms).
• Most of the Saudi men wear the traditional thawb (ankle-length robe with long sleeves). During warmer weather, white thawbs are worn and, in cooler months, wool thawbs in dark colors are common.
• Believe it or not, living an alcohol-free life for a week was actually a pretty welcome break. I slept better, for one, and I was able to really immerse myself in every single activity, from morning to evening.
• Instead of CNN or BBC being televised at the gate while you're waiting for your flight to depart in Jeddah, a live stream from Mecca is shown.
• The five-times-a-day call to prayer reminds you that, here, faith governs life.
• Family first.
• Not all women are fully covered, folks.
• Oud incense is burned everywhere. This addicting aroma, remnant of Christmas pines and something that Le Labo or Byredo would produce, is heaven-“scent.”
• Men and boys undertaking their pilgrimage to Mecca undergo a clothing transition. Once they enter the Province—be it via air, sea, or land—they remove their clothing and wrap themselves in white towels. Wearing something identical signifies that no man will stand out amongst other pilgrims for his abundance or deficit of money.
The beautiful landscape at Habitas AlUla. Photo Credit: Lindsay Feinberg
Personal Trip Highlights
Of the three places we visited—Riyadh, AlUla, and Jeddah—I would say that AlUla was my overall favorite because of the dramatic red mountains, desert landscape, incredible hotel properties (and many to come, including three from Aman), climate (cool mornings and evenings), and the many other amazing structures and attributes. I found Jeddah to be completely fascinating, full of history and beautiful. I especially loved our yacht excursion on the gorgeous turquoise waters of the Red Sea, strolling through the UNESCO World Heritage Site and souk at Al Balad (which is also the gateway to Mecca and where my ancestors came to meet the sponsor for their own pilgrimage), and eating the freshest seafood I've ever had in my life.
Thoughtful Travel Considerations
Are you interested in checking out Saudi Arabia? Before you consider a visit, ask yourself a few critical questions:
• Can I visit this country and respect their culture, dress code, laws and religious practices? While I may not agree with all of them, if I am voluntarily going to spend some time there, I need to follow the rules while I am ‘in their house.’
• Can I gracefully represent the place where I am coming from? I must always remember that I am my country’s ambassador.
• Can I leave my preconceived notions and stereotypes at the door to welcome new customs, traditions, memories and friendships?
If you answered “yes” to the questions above, then I'd say you're ready for a visit to the Kingdom!
"...The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.” -Anthony Bourdain
For more information on Saudi Arabia, visit their tourism hub here.