Intrepid’s new Women’s Expedition is exploring Saudi Arabia through a different lens 

written by Sahar Aman April 4, 2024

Peek behind the scenes of Intrepid’s latest trip with the women who made it all happen. They share how their experiences in Saudi Arabia inspired them to bring other travellers to this emerging destination.

While some may be apprehensive about Saudi Arabia as a travel destination, after experiencing the country alongside local women guides and spending one-on-one time with the people themselves, Jenny Gray and Zina Bencheikh were inspired. 

Zina, Intrepid’s managing director of Europe, the Middle East and Africa and a collaborator in the development of Intrepid’s Women’s Expedition says, ‘Saudi Arabia is considered an emerging destination. It’s important for Intrepid to take travellers to new places, especially if they have so much to offer when it comes to culture, experiences and, of course, the people.’ 

Zina believes travellers should get the chance to form their own idea of a country. A Women’s Expedition especially helps to break down barriers and foster discussion through experiences that are ordinarily off limits on mixed-gender trips.

Zina visiting Masjid Quba in Madinah.

As the product manager of Intrepid’s Women’s Expeditions, Jenny spoke about her experience in Saudi Arabia with a mixture of curiosity and contemplation

‘I had some preconceptions about what I might see and experience,’ she says. ‘I went out of my way to talk to locals, of all ages and backgrounds, especially women, to understand the realities of life for them. I left with an overwhelming sense that tourism is providing people, particularly women, with a vehicle to shape their own narratives, as well opening up new opportunities and a chance to break any surviving stereotypes.’  

Starting with her local leader, Fatimah, a 30-year-old divorcee born and raised on a farm whose hobbies include rock climbing and adventure sports.  

‘Fatimah was not what I was expecting at all,’ explains Jenny. ‘One day she would be dressed in a gorgeous flowing abaya with big, sparkly hoop earrings. The next day she was dressed head to toe in Columbia hiking gear talking about some of her favourite off-road adventures.’ 

Jenny adds that many of the women she met wanted to help shape Saudi Arabia’s future with their own stories and aspirations. ‘What I saw were unapologetic and proud women leading from the front.’ 

A woman standing in an ornate white building
Jenny visiting the Murabba Palace. It’s one of the historic buildings in Al Murabba, Riyadh.

Zina underscores the significance of this shift.

‘Progress is undeniable and benefiting women,’ she explains. ‘The women I met told me they feel free, empowered and safe. They can wear the veil or not. It’s their choice. I myself went with and without veils at times, and never felt uncomfortable no matter what I chose to wear – unlike other countries in North Africa and the Middle East.’ 

She adds that it’s also women who are benefiting firsthand from tourism. ‘Women are carving out space as guides, hotel owners and entrepreneurs. They are empowered to lead and driven to change the perception of their country.’ 

The cradle of Islam, Saudi Arabia is home to the spiritual cities of Mecca and Madinah and holds a profound place in the hearts of Muslims, history buffs and theologists alike. Beyond the towering minarets of two of the grandest mosques in the world, there are stunning landscapes and a wealth of pre-Islamic-era landmarks just waiting to be explored.  

I left with an overwhelming sense that tourism is providing people, particularly women, with a vehicle to shape their own narratives, as well opening up new opportunities and a chance to break any surviving stereotypes.

One of Zina’s most memorable experiences from the trip was her time in Madinah, an ancient city now open to non-Muslim visitors too. She feels Madinah is special and has the potential to create more understanding of what Islam is about.

Listening to the city’s history through the perspective of a local female guide transported Zina back hundreds of years. ‘The atmosphere is incredible, and as part of the tour we went with female guide to a rooftop where we could see the mosque from very high up. The view is absolutely breathtaking.’ 

Intrepid’s approach to exploring Saudi Arabia reflects its commitment to operate trips locally and leave the economic benefits of travel in-destination. This Women’s Expedition was created in partnership with Sara Omar – the founder of two travel companies specialising in inbound and outbound tours. 

Jenny met Sara almost a year ago in the early days of concepting a Women’s Expedition to Saudi Arabia. Sara’s mission with her own travel companies – to create immersive, community-led experiences – sat seamlessly with Intrepid’s values.  

two women standing in front of a green door
Zina (left) with Sara in Saudi Arabia.

‘Sara is a real Intrepid person – dynamic, well-travelled, and committed to showcasing the real Saudi,’ says Zina. 

Sara is thrilled her home country will be part of Intrepid’s trips. ‘Not many companies are offering Saudi yet. It’s still a new destination that’s unknown to a lot of people. I think people will want to travel in a group for now, and then they’ll feel more confident in visiting. So, I’m excited and hopeful we will make this a memorable trip for a lot of people,’ she says.  

‘It was really important that whoever operated this trip on the ground understood our style of travel, and shared our ethos that travel could be a force for good when done properly,’ says Jenny.  

‘Sara’s in-depth local knowledge, personal experiences and contacts have been crucial in curating local experiences that allow travellers to see Saudi Arabia through the lens of local women with different perspectives, experiences and stories to share.’ 

I’m focused on giving experiences and interactions with the local community. So, you spend more time with people instead of landmarks.

Like all Women’s Expeditions, this will be led entirely by women, directly benefiting nine female-owned businesses. Some of the most compelling aspects of Intrepid’s Saudi Arabia trip are the community-based activities championed by Sara. ‘I’m focused on giving experiences and interactions with the local community. So, you spend more time with people instead of landmarks,’ she explains. 

From cooking classes and guided tours to visiting a citrus farm run by two sisters, travellers can engage with Saudi women on their own terms and celebrate their pride and creativity. 

Jenny says the home-cooked meal at the start of the trip in Riyadh is one of her favourite moments in the trip. ‘There are several different hosts for this experience and each one offers a glimpse inside a beautiful family home, each with their own unique stories and Saudi traditions to share. You could sit down to a meal with a yoga instructor or a CEO. You might learn how to play carrom board, prepare old family recipes passed down from grandmothers or simply sip tea in the garden.’ 

‘With or without us, Saudi will become a major tourism destination,’ Zina says. She goes on to share that with travel, we can shape and change narratives, amplify voices that often go unheard and build bridges. In Saudi Arabia, that journey is just beginning. 

Learn more about Sara Omar, the tour operator Intrepid partnered with to develop this trip, and see the 12-day itinerary for yourself.

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