As recently as five years ago there would have been many raised eyebrows if you were to say that international tourism would become a powerful and integral part of Saudi Arabia’s growing and ambitious diversified economic strategy.
We are fortunate to have been an agency intimately involved in the kingdom’s rapidly emerging tourism industry over the past four years. Those tentative green shoots of a few years ago are rapidly flowering into the world’s newest and undiscovered global tourism destination.
Since Saudi began opening up to broader tourism in 2019, more than 400,000 of new tourist visas have been issued to travellers wishing to savour an enticing taste both of what this extraordinary nation has to offer and what is to come.
While the pandemic has stopped global travel in its tracks, it has not stopped Saudi Arabia’s major ambitious tourism projects from
continuing their development phase – putting the infrastructure and systems in place to welcome millions of international tourists in the future.
At the national level, as part of Vision 2030, the government has set a goal of 100 million tourist visits – domestic and international – in the next decade, vastly more than any other comparable destination in the wider Middle East region.
The government is placing major investments behind its ambitious tourism program. Saudi Arabia’s minister of tourism, Ahmed Al-Khateeb, said the kingdom is aiming to attract new tourism investments worth SAR 220bn ($58bn) by 2023, and more than SAR 500bn by the end of the decade.
Outsiders will ask just what is going to make the world’s travellers take a glimpse into a destination that for many years has been – with the exception of religious tourists – impossible to visit for ordinary travellers.
A major asset for Saudi Arabia is the country’s sheer size and diversity.
Some destinations around the world can offer just a single, albeit extraordinary, visitor experience. Whether that is a focus on heritage and history; unspoiled sun-kissed beaches and azure waters; the relaxation of a cruise liner; spa and wellness experiences; the tranquillity of the mountains or adrenaline-fueled theme park adventure. In the kingdom, there are already destinations in place or under development that offer every one of this enormous diversity of visitor attraction and much more.
History and culture buffs can experience civilisations more than 2000 years old; explorers can hike through green forests, traditional forests and be at one with nature; ride on what will be the world’s fastest rollercoaster; scuba dive or snorkel among untouched coral reefs or relax on a luxury liner in the world’s newest cruising destination.
And it means for communications professionals a rich and compelling diversity of stories to tell about this surprising and unexplored nation of contrasts and opportunity.
These are also stories that are built on hard facts and figures. The coming winter season, for example, is set to see Saudi Arabia welcome an estimated 170,000 international guests enjoying its new and emerging cruise line sector.
Construction is underway to build tens of thousands of new hotel rooms nationwide that will deliver wide-ranging experiences, and the kingdom’s hotel pipeline is set to increase by more than 65 per cent in the coming three years. These range from boutique hotels created in heritage areas by global brands that are new to the nation to innovative properties literally carved into a desert mountainside.
International visitors will be a vital part of the tourism mix – but building a powerful and vibrant domestic visitor market is just as important.Young Saudis and families will no longer need to travel to other destinations for diverse and rewarding vacations.
Now they can explore their own country, discover new experiences and enjoy world-class visitor attractions on their doorstep or just a short drive or flight away.
This expansion will open up new career opportunities for thousands of young Saudis given the opportunity
to train as chefs; as guides and hosts; manage tour operators; run hotels.
They will take their place with pride and professionalism to welcome the world to a vibrant and developing Saudi Arabia.
As the world’s newest undiscovered destination – to international visitors at least – it is abundantly clear that Saudi Arabia offers extraordinary scope and opportunity to the global hospitality sector and an opportunity to create new and unique developments that have “wow-factor” hard-wired into their essence.
My advice for those of you who have yet to visit is: don’t hesitate. Every international journalist, colleague and friend we have hosted in the past three years has been amazed at what they have seen and experienced – in a place where truly seeing is believing.