Country I never thought I’d visit
I'VE been obsessed with travel forever, and there aren't many places I wouldn't jump at the chance of visiting.
But it's safe to say I never thought I'd make it to Saudi Arabia in this lifetime.
For starters, the mysterious kingdom has been all but off limits to outsiders before a new visa program was finally announced last month.
And it's also a country that more often than not lands in the news for all the wrong reasons including the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October, the treatment of women, the LGBTQI community and other minorities, and its clash with Iran.
Until recently, women in Saudi Arabia were barred from driving and needed permission from a male guardian in order to travel, and the country's strict decency laws mean women still wear an abaya - a loose, usually black body-covering robe - at all times in public, which is a tough ask for a nation with temperatures that regularly hit the high 40s.
So when I was invited to visit the enigmatic country as part of a (mostly female) press pack in September, I was fascinated - but more than a little apprehensive.
But I shouldn't have been.
For starters, women are now able to travel freely, and foreigners, at least, are not required to wear the abaya - a fact repeated to us several times by friendly locals.
Everywhere we went, we were treated with complete respect - not only by those working in tourism, but also by everyday Saudis.
There are smart, educated, confident young women working in museums, hotels and other tourist hot spots across the country, and English is widely spoken.
We couldn't walk through a market without being welcomed to the country - and even given free gifts like bread and other produce.
On our last day in Saudi Arabia, I spent several hours wandering through Jeddah's historic old city with just one fellow female journalist as a companion.
Previous travel to other Middle Eastern countries taught us to expect a fair bit of attention and even possibly the odd spot of harassment, but apart from a few friendly looks and "welcomes", we were completely left to enjoy the place in peace.
I felt safer in Saudi Arabia than I do in parts of Sydney, and we weren't so much as hassled to buy a single trinket at any point during our trip - something which has never happened on any other holiday I've ever been on.
Of course, as invited guests into a country which is eager to impress and entice future tourists - and their cash - we were incredibly sheltered and were only ever going to be shown Saudi Arabia in its very best light.
But the truth is, I loved every second of my time there.
It has some incredible sights and attractions, including scuba diving in the pristine Red Sea and the awe-inspiring Hegra, which is arguably as impressive at Petra in nearby Jordan.
Insane amounts of money are being spent on some up-and-coming tourism projects and resorts, which means there will be even more to offer visitors in the years ahead.
And perhaps most importantly, I felt genuinely welcomed by people of all walks of life we met along the way.
Tourism is in its infancy in Saudi Arabia, and its impossible to say whether increased tourist numbers will take away some of its charm.
And the country still clearly has a long way to go when it comes to human rights, although there has been a recent and fairly dramatic move towards modernisation, including lifts on bans on entertainment and female drivers, a limit placed on the powers of the religious police and now this major tourism push.
But in the week I was there, I was hard pressed to come up with any downsides I had personally experienced, apart from the heat and the lack of alcohol (although there are rumours the booze ban might one day be lifted, in hotels at least).
At the moment, the name "Saudi Arabia" still conjures up plenty of examples of (well deserved) bad press.
But travelling there was also one of the most special and unique experiences of my life and while I might be naive, I got the impression that Saudi Arabia was a country in the midst of massive change - hopefully for the better.
- The reporter travelled to Saudi Arabia with the assistance of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage