If there is a final frontier left in tourism, then the unexplored landscape of Saudi Arabia is it. Normally the preserve of business travellers and pilgrims, today the country is ushering in a new dawn for those who wish to make fresh footprints on untrodden paths and look upon views that have long remained unseen.
The spiritual home of Islam offers more than only the dramatic cities of Mecca and Medina. It is supremely rich in attractions, from the carved tombs of Al-Ula, which rivals Petra in its allure, to the dramatic Asir moutains and the turquoise waters that lap against undisturbed beaches on the Red Sea.
All of this and more lies open to mainstream travellers with the introduction of a new tourism visa. Under the Vision 2030 plan, Saudi Arabia is opening its doors to what will become a great flow of tourists eager to find new places and memories. Within a decade it is expected to welcome more than 100 million visitors, drawn to its modern cities, ancient sites, lost landscapes and gleaming hotels.
Travellers will be able to collect memories from Saudi Arabia’s historic medieval bazaars, minaret-studded mosques, remote oases and untamed deserts. But they can also enjoy the impressive roster of spectator events that have sprung up in the kingdom, from concerts to sports featuring major international performers and athletes. The Backstreet Boys and 50 Cent have appeared, along with wrestling’s WWE Super ShowDown and the hosting of a Formula E Championship race.
The influx of tourism is expected to generate an abundance of jobs among Saudi Arabia’s youthful population, with a million new employees in the sector.
If good news travels fast, the country could soon become one of the most sought-after destinations for curious travellers, particularly for those who want to be among the first to experience its hidden wonders. Until now, what most of the world has known about Saudi Arabia has been its abundance of sand and oil. Yet there is a world of mystery in the kingdom that will reward those who discover it with the adventure of a lifetime.
It is not only the places. The people of Saudi Arabia have a long and well-earned reputation for kindness to strangers. Visitors will find themselves sipping refreshing cups of tea or distinctive Arabic coffee while sitting on deep cushions surrounded by the bold, woody aromas of incense, experiencing traditions unbroken for centuries.
Saudi Arabia’s five Unesco World Heritage Sites will soon be spread across glossy tourist brochures. The Arabian Peninsula is home to diverse and astonishing landscapes: mountainous terrain where visitors can hike to the Edge of the World; vast green spaces; the beaches of the Red Sea and ancient sites such as Al-Ula.
Visitors can interact with locals, building bridges between cultures, and, importantly, evolving their understanding of Saudi Arabia to create their own views and perceptions. For many it may come as a surprise to meet female entrepreneurs using their visions to propel the nation.
An initiative named Saudi Seasons has also been introduced, where a city or region will host scores of events such as live concerts, art exhibitions and major sports. Jeddah Season will be one of the first and visitors will be able to enjoy the city’s beautiful corniche lined with boutiques, restaurants and the famous Jeddah Fountain – the world’s tallest of its kind.
This is only the beginning for the burgeoning tourism sector. Saudi Arabia is engaged in wide-ranging development and preservation of both new and old. Attractions under development, such as the futuristic city of Neom, will be equipped with state-of-the-art resorts, smart technologies and robots.
The massive “entertainment city” of Qiddiya is set to become an international landmark. It will provide a home for living, playing and enjoyment for current and future generations. Just 40 minutes’ drive from the capital Riyadh, the entertainment city will boast more than 300 attractions from waterparks to eco-centres and high-adrenaline events, alongside cultural and sports activities.
Saudi Arabia’s tourism visa will be a historic milestone for the country. It is also likely to provide a landmark in the memory of those who have it stamped in their passport.