A new tourist hub in the Arabian desert

A new tourist hub in the Arabian desert

Expert Reports  

Saudi Arabia’s Tourism Minister Ahmed bin Aqil al-Khateeb unveiled a Tourism Investment Promotion Program on Monday aimed at increasing the Kingdom’s investment attractiveness for local and foreign capital. According to the Saudi news agency SPA, the department - jointly with the Ministry of Investments - plans to boost investments in the hospitality sector by providing various favorable terms for businesses.

It is expected that the implementation of this initiative can help in increasing the total number of hotel rooms by 42 thousand, which will create about 120 thousand new jobs. The expected investments reach 42 bn Saudi riyals (over $11 bn), which will bring an additional 16 bn Saudi riyals (over $4 bn) in revenue to the state’s GDP by 2030. The program is part of the Kingdom’s ambitious plan to transform Saudi Arabia into a global tourism hub. How justified and feasible are such large-scale goals of the country to become a leader in the tourism industry?

Just a few years ago, it was impossible to imagine traveling to Saudi Arabia because the ultra-conservative Islamic state allowed only Islamic pilgrims to travel to its territory to perform the Hajj to Mecca and the holy places of Islam. However, everything changed in 2016, with launching the Vision 2030 program aimed at the country’s strategic development. The program is carried out under the patronage of Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud and aimed at diversifying and modernizing the economy, removing its dependence on oil revenues, and developing new efficient and profitable industries. Tourism is among these promising sectors.

A year later, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia made certain easing of some requirements and restrictions imposed on relating women whose rights had been previously greatly limited. At first, they were allowed to drive a car, and were given voting rights and the opportunity to be in the civil service. Later, Saudi women were allowed to attend football matches, play sports, girls were allowed to attend sports lessons at schools and get training at special women’s fitness centers. An important milestone in the life of the Saudi society was the opening of cinemas, which had been under a total ban for 40 years.

What has changed in the country over the past eight years? On the Red Sea coast, the construction of the metropolis of Neom (meaning ‘new future’) is in full swing, and this project was the forefront of the Vision 2030 strategy. The city with an investment potential of over $500 bn that should function using exclusively solar and wind energy is expected to become a technological hub for the countries of Asia and Africa. The plans are that a ‘smart’ linear autonomous city, The Line, will be built (a kind of a ‘closed-cycle’ mega-building 170 km long, 200 meters wide and 500 meters high, with all the infrastructure required for comfortable life) in this metropolis of the future with its own seaport, as well as a luxury seaside resort of Sindalah, an exclusive and glamorous tourism destination on the island. In the mountainous region of Trojena, the infrastructure facilities for extreme sports and mountain skiing are under construction and they will be completed by 2026.

In addition to the futuristic times to come, the Saudis also rely on the past tourism experience, although tourism was poorly promoted at that time. But there are a lot of tourism anchors in Saudi Arabia, and few travelers can boast of visiting historical sites from the era of the Nabataean Kingdom due to the closed nature of the Kingdom.

In particular, the oldest architectural monument dates back to those times - the rock city of Madain Saleh (Hegra) in the Hejaz in the north-western part of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; Hegra is very much like the prehistoric Jordanian city of Petra. But this 2,000-year-old lost city is practically unknown to foreign tourists. On its special tourism website, Saudi Arabia also offers a tour to ‘sandfalls’ where sand cascades down hard slopes in a desert, and invites to take part in one of the world’s largest and beautiful flower festivals, as well as to look at the tallest fountain in Jeddah - the principal gateway to Mecca Sharif - that is listed in the Guinness Book of Records, and see many other sights. The cultural and natural monument of Al Ula, an ancient Arabic oasis city, with its 1,500-year history, is a must-visit.

In general, Saudi Arabia really has many attractions to show to tourists coming to the country, including the ones on the Red Sea coast, in the desert, in the mountains in the Tabuk region where it snows in winter, as well as in Jeddah considered the most liberal city, and in the capital city of Riyadh; so, even the most experienced tourists can discover the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and get an amazing experience. There is a good reason that the demand for tourist licenses increased by 390% during the last year alone, according to the Ministry of Tourism. The tourism sector employs now about a million people, with 45% being women, so the country has made great advances.

Saudi Arabia has made a progress and it is developing by leaps and bounds. The country is going to offer high-level service to the most experienced and demanding tourists who have traveled much, so it’s difficult to surprise them. According to a number of observers, there remains one big obstacle - the ban on alcohol, which is important for vacationers. Perhaps, this problem will be resolved over time, for example, the same way as the Qatari authorities did some time ago when they allowed foreigners to drink alcohol in hotels and special places like nightclubs and restaurants. After all, Saudi Arabia has lifted some restrictions on foreign women traveling in the Kingdom and allowed them not to cover their heads in public places, although previously, all women had to wear a hijab (headscarf). Nowadays, it is enough to wear clothes that are not tight and should cover elbows and knees, which is very important in the scorching sun of Arabia. Women were also allowed to travel without being accompanied by men.

Last fall, Russia proposed a complete abolition of tourist visas to a number of the Gulf and Asian countries. Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia are among them. When this happens, it will become an additional encouraging factor for tourists - including those from Russia - to travel to these countries.

Photo https://www.visitsaudi.com