Is positive-impact travel to Saudi Arabia even possible?

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As Intrepid Travel launch a new women’s tour to Saudi Arabia, Sarah Reid speaks to the female forces who made it happen, including Saudi Arabian tour operator Sara Omar.

It’s one of the world’s ‘newest’ travel destinations, offering surreal desert landscapes and teeming reefs ripe for adventure and a window into a rich culture shuttered to the outside world for decades. Yet Saudi Arabia remains one of the most controversial places on the planet to visit, shunned by many international travelers due to ethical and safety concerns.

It’s understandable why some travelers prefer to stay away from this deeply conservative corner of the Middle East. I won’t deny that, as a solo female traveler, I was uneasy about my first, independent trip to the Kingdom following the launch of tourist visas in 2019. At the time, Saudi women had only just been granted the right to work as tour guides. Despite sweeping reforms since 2018 that have also allowed women to work outside the home, live alone, and travel without the permission of a male guardian, Saudi Arabia still ranks among the lowest in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index.

But I’m also a believer that traveling to places like Saudi Arabia in the right way can be a force for good by helping to break down barriers and drive positive change, particularly in terms of empowering women, who now comprise an impressive 45 percent of Saudi’s tourism workforce. It’s a belief shared by Intrepid Travel, which is currently gearing up to host its first tour to the Kingdom, its Saudi Arabia Women’s Expedition, in November this year.

The Saudi Arabia Women’s Expedition currently supports female guides, and women-owned hotels and restaurants, and Jenny hopes to partner with additional female-owned businesses along the supply chain as the tour evolves. “We’re always looking for more businesses to support,” she says. Which sounds like a perfect opportunity for female-run transport services to get in touch…

Sara, who is based in the Saudi seaside city of Jeddah, will host Intrepid’s first Saudi Arabia Women’s Expedition, and as many subsequent trips as her busy schedule allows. The mother of two isn’t only passionate about supporting her fellow female Saudi tourism pioneers, but also showcasing the ‘real Saudi’ to international travelers.

“There have always been a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions about Saudi,” says Sara. “Saudis are actually very hospitable, and I’m really excited to have more people coming to Saudi and experiencing that for themselves.”

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