This is the final part of our Saudi Road Trip
After leaving Jeddah for Baha (part 1) and an amazing mountain cable car ride in Abha (part 2), we finally arrived in Jizan for the last part of our road trip. Our ultimate goal was the Farasan Islands, a group of islands in the south of Saudi Arabia, close to the Yemeni border, which is quite famous among the expat community in Saudi, but fairly unknown to the rest of the world. Having seen some pictures online of impossibly turquoise waters, we wanted to see for ourselves this little Saudi gem.
How to get there?
From the city of Jizan, getting to Farasan Island is really quite simple: you take a ferry and cross over in a little more than an hour to reach the main island.
With and without a car:
If you don’t have a car and plan to cross on foot, all you have to do is get to the Ferry Departure Terminal in the port of Jizan (Click HERE for the google pin).
If you do have a car and would like to cross with it, you will FIRST NEED A TICKET from the ticket issue center which is located… well… not on the port like we’d imagine but a little further inside the city. It took us a LOOOOOOONG time to find someone who knew anything about anything regarding tickets. You’d think people at the ferry terminal would know about ferry tickets, don’t you? Well they don’t! We have been sent to pretty much everywhere in Jizan before we finally found the right place.
Anyway, let me save you a few precious hours. Here is the Google Map pin for the Farzan Ticket Issue Center.
The best part?
Getting on board the ferry for the Farasan Islands, with or without a car, is COMPLETELY FREE FOR EVERYONE! Yeah 🙂
Where to stay?
If you plan to take an early morning ferry to the Farasan Islands, you may want to spend the night in Jizan. That’s what we did and we picked the Beauty Rayan Hotel 2. It’s an apart’hotel where we rented a family flat (2 bed 2 bath) for one night. It’s very close to the main road coming from the north, so it’s easy to find even if you arrive late at night like we did. It is also very close to the ferry departure terminal; only about 5 minutes drive. Perfect.
In the Farasan Islands:
Don’t be fooled by the online listings. On the English web, you’ll find basically TWO hotels listed for the Farasan Islands and those are both expensive and usually fully booked. We didn’t use any of them, we just drove around a bit and found some rooms for the night in a small hotel. Nothing fancy (really not) but clean, and it had a good shower to clean up after the beach. Also the people at the front desk were super helpful and even drew us a map of the island to find everything we wanted.
Is it safe?
You may be wondering about how safe it is to travel to and stay in Jizan. It is indeed very near the Yemeni border: a place that is currently (2018) the scene of fights between Saudi Arabia and Yemen. And there has been incidents in Jizan. However, we figured, loads of people (Saudi and expats) are still LIVING there so passing through shouldn’t be more dangerous for us than it is for all those people. Having said that, in the current climate, it is always advisable to ask around a bit before you head down there.
Headaches with a capital H
Everything sounds easy and beautiful so far? Now for the major HEADACHE! As many expats in Saudi can testify, there is no such thing as an easy encounter with any kind of administration. It’s always messy, long, and troublesome… and that’s on a good day. Well, getting a ticket to take our car onto the ferry was far from easy. Definitely long and tiresome, and it ended up messing up the final part of our road trip big time!
As I said, the crossing is free of charge but certainly not free from troubles. First we had to FIND the right place to get a ticket. A big step since most people seem to have never heard of it. When we did find it, we had to waiiiiiiiiiiiit. A long time, before we could talk to someone. Then that someone was busy drinking his morning tea and chatting so we waited some more. Only to be told that we had to wait to talk to someone at another desk! We waited some more and were then told: “you need to book a car ticket one week in advance“. Not so fast! There is no way to do this online or by phone. The lovely people of the ferry company reckon people should travel to Jizan one week before they expect to cross over to the Farasan Islands.
Sounds impractical? It is. But we found out there is another way. You can go with your car to the ferry departure terminal and join a queue of passengers without tickets. Once they start boarding cars, ticket holders go first and if there are some spaces left after that, they will start boarding non-ticket-holding vehicles. Fortunately, since it is a FREE service, there are actually quite a lot of no-show and a few dozen cars can usually get on the ferry without a ticket. On our way to the Farasan Islands, we actually managed to board the first ferry we queued for.
But the headache wasn’t over. We were advised to book a return ticket from the ticket issue center on the island as soon as we’d land there. You know, so we could board at the time we wanted for the return crossing. So as soon as we arrived on the island, we went looking for the ticket issue center. And yep, you can guess, wasn’t easy. And no, it’s nowhere near the ferry terminal so here is the map pin to save you some time. By the time we found the office, it was prayer time so we had to wait about 30 minutes for it to re-open, then about an hour more waiting to talk to someone…. and guess what? It was all for nothing as we were told that since we hadn’t booked a ticket to come to the Farasan Islands, then we couldn’t book a ticket to leave. We’d have to do the queuing again when we wanted to leave.
After all that, we were left with only a couple of hours before sunset to enjoy the beach! And the next morning, we didn’t catch the first ferry so the waiting time at the departure terminal was really long (especially with young children). OMG the Headaches!
Is it worth it?
That’s a valid question and I guess it depends on your level of patience. I certainly wish we had known what we learnt the hard way. In fact, we did try to get all those details but there was nothing online to help. A few expat blogs provided some partial info on the Farasan Islands as well as extremely enticing pictures but that’s about it.
The Farasan Islands is like a postcard destination really and I wish we had had more time there: not only for the beach but also to explore the whole island as there are some ancient villages to check out and many activities you can do with enough time. I would definitely like to go again. If only to see those impossibly turquoise waters again.
In the end, tourism in Saudi Arabia is worth it but very frustrating at the moment. The country has finally re-allowed tourist visas in 2018 and it is investing billions to create new cities for tourists as well as bank on its Red Sea coastline and numerous islands to attract visitors. The sites of Saudi Arabia are incredible and are sure to amaze even the most experienced world travelers. But at the moment there is a serious lack of online and offline infrastructure to cater for tourists. There is barely any information available. Everything has to be gathered, crumb by crumb from unofficial sources and it is a long and unreliable process. If Saudi Arabia wants to turn to tourism to diversify its economy, it will have to address those issues as well as conduct massive training in customer service/relations.
I guess it will happen eventually…. time will tell.
What do you think of the Farasan Islands? Does this make you want to visit Saudi Arabia?