Unfortunately for the estimated 1.85 million women going to Saudi Arabia for the Hajj, travel is unsafe in the kingdom. Repeated stampedes of pilgrims on the Hajj, the uptick of terrorist attacks, infectious diseases, high level of auto accidents, and severe cultural restrictions on women tourists pushes Saudi Arabia to #5 on the 2016 List of 10 Most Dangerous Countries for Women Travelers.
Rating: Dangerous and Obnoxious
The 2015 stampede led to over 2,411 pilgrims dead and 863 injured. This was despite major efforts by the Saudi government and billions spent for crowd control due to prior incidents. However, when you put masses of tourists together for an event and there are repeated instances of stampedes with mass deaths, it is a unique threat that needs to be taken seriously. Quite frankly, if you look at the death toll for women tourists, Saudi Arabia appears to be the most lethal country on Earth since roughly 1,200 women died there last year.
New for 2016 are travel warnings associated with ISIS attacks into the kingdom. Foreigners have been attacked in public places, causing the Aussies to suggest reconsidering your need to travel there. The increasing attacks by ISIS creates additional risk for the Hajj.
Beyond that, there are other issues that specifically affect women. Special rules for women pilgrims must be followed, including how to manage your menstrual cycle and whether you must be accompanied by a male. Beyond that, the weather can be very hot and humid. During the Hajj, visitors are warned the temperatures at Mecca can range from 64 to 100 degrees F. Thanks to climate change, the weather is not likely to be milder, which is particularly tough for women tourists, who are expected to wait in the heat for hours.
MERS, a respiratory disease, continues to be a problem. Thus, the UK and Canada warn about travel there. Keep in mind; if you are doing the Hajj, you are being exposed to all the infectious diseases brought by people from all over the globe.
Transportation is also an issue based on a high rate of auto accidents. All told, there are a number of factors that make travel unsafe in Saudi Arabia.
We also find Saudi Arabia falls in the obnoxious category for women since aside from the Hajj, women traveling alone cannot easily get visas to enter the country. The Saudis don’t issue tourism visas so you can only get in through a business trip (a work visa is possible but requirements are tough and even stricter for women, such as being 27 or older) or through a family trip (you’d need to be visiting a relative there) or because you are making the Hajj. Regardless of how you get in, the requirements are that you need a male sponsor or guardian (depending on your reason for going), you must have confirmed accommodations for the duration of your stay as well as the usual visa requirements, and entry may be denied if the woman visitor is deemed to be behaving indecently according to Saudi law and tradition.
Here are some tips for navigating crowds safely.
There are a number of things to avoid:
- It is a good idea not to offend the religious police by being out on the streets during the five daily prayers (the times change daily so check online or in the newspaper!)
- Be sure to wear an Abeya. Every woman needs to wear one.
- Wear a head scarf (not required of foreigners but still likely to get you in trouble).
- Don’t drink alcohol. You knew this, right?
- Do not travel with a man other than your husband or a relative.
- Don’t drive a car, ride a bicycle or take a photo. Technically photography is okay but in practice, it’s often a problem.
- Don’t overtly act like a non-Muslim. This means don’t behave in public in any way that looks religious but not Muslim.
- Don’t criticize the royal family or Saudi government.
- Not to mention a host of other laws and practices that are hazardous to women, including the requirement of having your husband’s permission to leave the kingdom even if you are a foreign national and even if he isn’t Saudi.
Our view is, why travel to a country that actively discourages tourists, and has laws and practices that are hostile to women? Why spend your tourist dollars in a country that doesn’t respect women?
If you want to go to Saudi Arabia or must go: Duma Al Jundal has amazing waterfalls. Al Hijr has spectacular ancient ruins (it is an ancient Nabataean archeological site). Al Hijr is usually safe, except for one Al Qaeda attack on tourists in 2007. However, the statistics on safety may be rather low since it is very hard to get access.
Conclusion: Perhaps you are thinking it would be better to go where a woman can travel freely and safely, if so, please refer to our 10 safest countries for women tourists.
Cover Photo: EPA via BBC
Description: Hajj stampede