Shortly thereafter, Melissa Biggs Bradley – the founder of Indagare, a members-only, boutique travel-planning company, offering curated content, customized trip-planning, and group trips – was invited into the kingdom by one of its royal commissions on regional tours to advise on how to develop their historical sites and attract Western travelers.
In January 2018, she and her female COO, Eliza Harris, flew into Riyadh before heading out to the Al-‘Ula region and the UNESCO World Heritage site of Mada’in Saleh.
As somebody who’s been lucky enough to visit Petra, Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu and other great ruins and wonders of the world, this is absolutely on equal footing with them in terms of ancient architecture and artifacts, as well as the scale.
So few people have visited or seen photos of Mada’in Saleh because Saudi Arabia had not issued tourist visas before they announced that they would do so last year.
The only visas you could get to visit Saudi Arabia were either for business purposes as guests of the royal kingdom or for religious purposes to go to Mecca.
It had inscriptions in the rock from this time alongside early Islamic writings from people making the Hajj Pilgrimage, who would have had to cross the desert on their way to Mecca.
We took a helicopter tour over the whole region at one point to get a sense of the scale and to stop at different points, including Mount Akra, which had early Islamic writings dating back to the first years after the death of Muhammad.
There’s nobody living in Mada’in Saleh, but there are roughly 65,000 people living in the entire region and a concentration in a town that has grown up around the ancient walled village that is now a heritage site.
What was that like – being a western woman in Saudi Arabia?
You need to be properly attired when you get off the plane in Saudi Arabia with both a headscarf and an abaya and according to what I have read of the new visa rules women under the age of 25 traveling to Saudi Arabia must be accompanied by a family member.
I felt safe the whole time I was in Saudi Arabia but whenever I travel I think you have to be sensitive and respectful of the local customs.
They’re doing it in a very thoughtful way because they don’t want to disrupt the culture of Saudi Arabia and they understand this is a major change to bring foreigners into a society that has not had a lot of foreign interaction.
To feel that you’ve been one of the first people to walk in one of the great wonders of the world before anybody has even heard of it reminded me of my grandmother’s journey to Angkor Wat in the early 1960s, and feeling like she’d walked into a mirage.
I was extremely eager to be able to not only share it with other people but to know that it was going to be very thoughtfully unveiled to the world.
For example, when Myanmar was under the rule of the generals, a well-prepared traveler could choose to support businesses that were run by regular people, where you knew your tourism dollars would go directly to them and not the ruling elite.
My hope is that as Saudi Arabia opens up with tourism, it will bring progress on social freedoms, including women’s rights.
I also hope people from outside of Saudi Arabia will want to see for themselves the country’s culture and to meet its people.
If you can put a human face even on differing perspectives, and expose other people to how much we have in common as opposed to how different we are, it brings about an alternative way to open up change
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