Is Kuwait the world’s most boring tourist destination? I went to find out
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Amongst the well-known Middle Eastern tourist hotspots of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, there are also lesser known destinations like the State of Kuwait. While the United Arab Emirates has more than 150,000 hotel rooms ready to welcome millions of tourists each year, Kuwait has only 7,000 according to the Gulf Cooperation Council Statistics Centre. It is one of the least visited countries in the Gulf region.
When looking at Kuwait as a destination I saw some interesting statistics and reviews of the country. An Expat Inside 2016 poll named Kuwait as the world’s worst country for expats, globally. Furthermore, Traveller.com.au lists Kuwait in its “world’s most boring destinations” list, while TripAdvisor is littered with reviews describing the destination as decidedly…dull.
With the challenge of reviewing Kuwait Airways from Kuwait International Airport (KWI) back to London Heathrow (LHR), I spent a few days in this Gulf country to decide for myself.
What I found certainly surprised me.
Arriving as a tourist
My arrival at Kuwait International Airport was the first indication the country doesn’t receive a huge number of tourists. I was eligible for a visa on arrival which should have been a simple process of paying a small fee, completing a short form and having a sticker affixed to my passport.
I handed over all the required documents and so began a detailed debate between staff that lasted a good 10 minutes. There didn’t appear to be any issues with my passport or application, the process just seemed to require a lot of discussion and delay.
I then had to take two steps to the right to have my photo taken for their records. Despite the officer manning the camera watching me at the next desk (there were only a couple of other visa applicants waiting in the room) and me passing him all the required documents, there was another lengthy conversation in Arabic before he pressed the button on the camera.
While the UAE visa on arrival process takes mere seconds, in Kuwait it took a good 30 minutes even with only one person in front of me.
The applicant before me was an American woman who lived in Kuwait as a military contractor but her daughter did not yet have an identity card, so she was applying for a visa on arrival for her. She was curious about my accent and asked me where I was from and what I was doing there. When I told her I was visiting for tourism reasons she gasped, responding: “I hope you’re not here long. There is nothing to do here.”
This wasn’t a good sign.
The next day, I set off to explore Kuwait. The weather in November was perfect — blue skies and a sunny 24 degrees Celcius — ideal for being outside and getting out and about. I ordered a taxi through the Careem app — Kuwait City is certainly not designed for pedestrians with its huge highways and limited pavements.
Taxis in Kuwait are clean, cheap and very reliable and there’s all sorts of discount codes available with the Careem app — you can get from one side of town to the other for £2.
First stop was The Grand Mosque of Kuwait. I was surprised to be warmly welcomed inside by a Scottish tour guide with a smile as broad as her accent. She walked us through the beautiful building, encouraging us to take as many photos as we liked and even inviting us to climb up to the minbar — the pulpit where the Imam delivers sermons.
She was very happy for us to spend as much or as little time as we liked with her in the mosque and gave us a real “behind the scenes” tour of areas even worshippers may not even see. She had moved from Glasgow to Kuwait almost two decades ago and other than the searingly hot summers, really enjoyed living there.
From there I wandered a few blocks away to the souk area.
The shops were largely the same as I had seen in nearby Gulf destinations like Bahrain and Dubai but what struck me was they were intertwined with modern, youthful and creative elements like street art and hipster cafes.
Nearby was Sadu House, a beautiful building housing a small textiles museum. There was beautiful and colourful homeware and clothing for sale in the central light-filled atrium of the building.
Considering how conservative I thought Kuwait would be, the fashion messages certainly weren’t! There was even a purse for sale with the slogan: “Prozak — feels like heaven everyday.”
Sadu House is home to Jumo coffee, one of the many artisan coffee shops dotted throughout the city. The setting was beautiful.
The iced date latte I ordered was delicious.
As the sun warmed up I was keen to discover if Kuwait, the “desert meets the sea” destination had any decent beaches. I also wanted to check out the Kuwait Towers, probably the most recognisable symbol of the city, so I headed there.
The towers were… as expected. There’s a restaurant at the top of one of them where you can have a meal with a view.
And the beaches nearby were surprisingly good. To the west of the towers, when the tide is out there are some rocks to contend with but to the east of the towers you can expect clean, sandy beaches and uninterrupted views.
Near my hotel was Al Shaheed Park — a sprawling green space that was really beautiful and peaceful in the middle of a bustling city — like a mini Central Park in New York. It was impeccably clean with gardeners picking up leaves one by one.
I had this lovely area virtually to myself, though there were a few locals out enjoying the green space.
I was looking for something interesting and a little different for dinner in Kuwait and had read about Dar Hamad in the inflight magazine on my way there. It is located in Salmiya, to the east of the city centre — another Careem to the rescue.
It was well worth the drive. The setting, service and food were all outstanding and it was one of the best meals I’ve had this year.
Noting alcohol is illegal, dining in Kuwait can be quite affordable. At a mid-range restaurant like the popular Kreej Kuwait you can enjoy a two-course dinner for two people for around KWD12 (£30).
A simple lunch at my hotel restaurant of a half charcoal grilled chicken, salad, chips and a soft drink was around £6. Dar Hamad is one of the more expensive dining options — my main dish of Lamb Machbous, a Kuwait speciality was so big I couldn’t finish it myself and was priced at £13.
Had I spent weeks in Kuwait I may well have found myself a little… restless. It doesn’t have the endless tourist attractions that somewhere like Dubai, London or New York has. But I was very pleasantly surprised by my few days there — to the point where I really wish I’d had longer. I discovered a rich Arabic culture with more of a feeling of history and depth than the bright lights of Dubai (where I had been the previous week), while still enjoying some of the benefits Dubai offers — consistently great winter weather, excellent beaches and it being a very clean and safe destination.
The lack of tourists was quite refreshing too — there were no queues and no crowds yet no one looked at me twice as I walked down the street and I was warmly welcomed everywhere with no one hassling me on the street.
I found a lovely mix between rich history and youthful enterprise – while Dubai is all about the biggest, flashiest and best of everything, Kuwait’s treasures aren’t immediately apparent – you need to dig a little deeper but there are wonderful independent cultural experiences everywhere. I don’t recall seeing any street art anywhere else in the Gulf!
Kuwait is easy to reach from the U.K. with three airlines now offering direct flights — British Airways, Kuwait Airways (stay tuned for review!) and Jazeera.
I can’t wait to return, because I think I’ve discovered a hidden gem that is anything but boring.
Featured image by Ben Smithson / The Points Guy