From ancient desert civilisations to sprawling metropolises, we spotlight the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as an up-and-coming tourism destination for discerning travellers.
Untamed desert wilderness, the submarine splendour of the Red Sea, atmospheric souks and teeming oasis cities – the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is a veritable smorgasbord for any tourist.
As the birthplace of Islam, KSA has long been an esteemed destination of religious pilgrimage, attracting Muslims from around the globe to its most-visited city, the province of Makkah. The nation is blessed with natural delights, paradisical oases, and archaic ruins such as AlUla where the remnants of the ancient Incense Route as the crossroads of bygone civilisations will transport you back in time. Elsewhere, head towards the coast of the Red Sea and you will discover the city of Jeddah – a place where the atmospheric old town is blessed with sea air and is acknowledged as a more creative and cosmopolitan alternative to the capital of Riyadh.
KSA’s appeal to tourists is diversifying and its status developing, as the Kingdom earns itself a place on the map as a haven for luxury travel experiences while also catering to the burgeoning demand for sustainable adventure. A plethora of ambitious ventures and undertakings are underway, most notably the mammoth Red Sea Project, which seeks to spearhead responsible and regenerative tourism destination development to enhance KSA’s luxury tourism and sustainability offering in harmony with the Red Sea’s fragile ecosystem. This is a major aspect of the Kingdom’s ambitious Vision 2030, as it aspires to reach over 100 million visitors every year.
Wherever you visit in this diverse and captivating country, you can be guaranteed to experience authentic Middle Eastern hospitality. In return, it is imperative to acknowledge local customs and traditions regarding etiquette and dress code. Always be respectful, and double check any regulations before you travel.
TOURISM INSIGHTS: ALMOSAFER
Operating under Almosafer – Saudi Arabia’s leading travel company – Discover Saudi is the Kingdom’s leading destination management company, specialising in inbound travel, online distribution and MICE solutions. We speak with Almosafer’s Chief Tourism Officer, Fahad Alobailan, to find out more about one of the Middle East’s most exciting travel destinations.
Firstly, could you introduce us to Saudi Arabia? What kind of travellers does the region most appeal to?
Fahad Alobailan, Chief Tourism Officer (FA): The country is perfectly positioned to welcome travellers across all segments of travel as Saudi Arabia really is continuing to build offerings for everyone. This includes adventure tourism, luxury escapes, family-friendly options and a vast array of landscapes that range from lush greenery in spring, to mountains covered in snow during winter, to beautiful seaside resorts in the summer, desert activities all year round and even lush greenery for nature lovers. Saudi Arabia is also home to the Two Holy Mosques which continue to draw religious tourists travelling to perform Umrah.
What makes the region stand out as a destination for luxury travel?
FA: In the space of a few years, the country has developed numerous hotels and resorts offering unrivalled luxury and wellness experiences. This includes the Red Sea Project – a luxury ecotourism project under development with ultra-luxury resorts offering tourists a wide variety of experiences all in one location, from deserts and mountains to volcanoes and pristine coastlines. A world-class luxury mountain resort is currently also under study in Soudah, home to the highest peaks in the Kingdom, and there are already luxury resorts operating in stunning locations including AlUla, home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hegra, Jeddah with its luxurious seaside resorts, Al Ahsa, and Diriyah, the jewel of the Kingdom.
What are some of the major tourism trends in KSA? Have you noticed this change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?
FA: During the pandemic, many people were prevented from travelling due to government restrictions across the world. Since the lifting of COVID-19 and travel restrictions, we have seen a huge resurgence of demand for travel. People are grasping at opportunities and they are no longer willing to wait for that once-in-a-lifetime trip with travellers opting to spend more on luxury experiences, including 5-star hotels. Destinations including Taif, Jizan, Al Khobar and Jeddah have become increasingly popular, with each city offering unique experiences. The historic city of AlUla has also been attracting a growing number of tourists.
Domestically, there has been a significant increase in the number of people travelling to attend conferences and events, such as the Riyadh Season, Deriyah Season and Saudi Cup, drawing people from across the Kingdom. We have seen a surge in religious travel as pilgrimage restrictions have been lifted and the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has announced that people on tourist visas are now able to perform Umrah. There is also a rising trend
of pilgrims combining their religious travel with leisure travel, extending their trip to explore the Kingdom.
What does KSA have to offer in terms of sustainable or eco-friendly travel experiences?
FA: A sustainable tourism sector is crucial to ensuring long-term viability and sustainable growth, including stable employment, protecting social-cultural authenticity and conserving natural heritage. Discover Saudi is helping to achieve this through our committed efforts to strengthen localised knowledge sharing and reach, including human capital building through training programmes. We are also educating international travel agents on the Kingdom’s rich culture, local customs and traditions, and showcasing it to the world. This includes the tourism human capital programmes launched by the Ministry of Tourism.
There are several eco-tourism projects underway in the Kingdom, including the aforementioned Red Sea Project which aims to attract international tourists while protecting the ecosystem of the Red Sea through various conservation programmes. Elsewhere, the Green Riyadh project will increase the city’s green spaces from 1.7 square miles (sqm) to 28 sqm, and the Neom project aims to introduce a new model of urban sustainability. Meanwhile, Seera Group, in partnership with the Tourism Development Fund, is developing Raghadan Tourist Resort, the first sustainable tourism project in the Al Baha region.
Tell us more about the Saudi Vision 2030 and how Discover Saudi supports this?
FA: In 2016, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched Saudi Vision 2030 which set out the framework to achieve economic diversification. The tourism sector is a key pillar of the Vision, with a target to account for 10 percent of the Kingdom’s GDP, attract 100 million visitors annually, and host 30 million religious tourists by 2030.
We are supporting the Vision in numerous ways including actively promoting the Kingdom, particularly to travel agents, building on our success of bringing in over 20,000 tourists since 2019. We are also educating travel agents globally on the many attractions in the Kingdom and helping to dispel misconceptions. In addition, we are supporting the events and entertainment industry, which also helps to drive tourism, by providing logistic and ancillary services to support large-scale events including the Saudi Cup and Dakar Rally.
Finally, what makes 2023 the year to visit KSA?
FA: There are many new initiatives and projects going live in 2023 that will facilitate travel to the Kingdom. Recent visa reforms, including the newly announced free transit visa, are making the country more easily accessible than ever before. This year, the Red Sea Project will welcome its first guests, the Red Sea International Airport is set to open and RIA, the new national carrier, will be launched. Saudi Arabia will also be hosting a wide range of exciting events that should not be missed, including the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Saudi Cup, numerous arts festivals and music concerts, and of course Umrah, with development taking place at many sites in Madinah and Makkah to enhance the pilgrims’ experience. With all this to come, 2023 is most definitely the year to visit the Kingdom!
FOR SOARING SOPHISTICATION…
Located within the iconic Kingdom Tower, the Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh is the height of luxury. Its interior combines authentic Saudi heritage with contemporary design to create a tasteful haven with unsurpassed personalised service. Situated on floors 30-50 of the 99-storey tower, formed in the shape of a parabola, each of the 249 rooms offers jaw-dropping views of the city and sunken marble baths for your leisure. Staff are on hand to assist Western travellers with negotiating the cultural nuances of the Saudi capital, and the hotel’s lobby leads you directly into the popular Al Mamlaka shopping mall.
FOR 5-STAR SERVICE IN THE CBD…
You will find the luxurious Mövenpick Hotel & Residences Riyadh in the new CBD district, strategically positioned next to the King Abdullah Financial District (KAFD) and Riyadh Winterwonder Land. This, combined with the hotel’s inviting mixture of genuine Swiss hospitality and Middle Eastern culture, makes it the ideal option for business and leisure travellers.
The world’s largest living museum, this ancient oasis city in northwestern Saudi Arabia promises to transport you to bygone centuries and the golden age of the caravan trade. Home to evocative ruins and archaeological treasures, walk amongst dramatic rock formations, sweeping sand dunes and visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hegra to view the spectacular monumental tombs of the Nabatean kingdom.
Known as ‘the jewel of the Kingdom’, historical Diriyah can be found just 20km northwest of Riyadh. Renowned for its formidable mud brick architecture, the settlement dates back to 1446 AD and is generally acknowledged as the birthplace of the Kingdom. Immerse yourself amongst these archaic ruins with a scenic stroll through the At-Turaif District – the capital city of the first Saudi state.
For followers of the Muslim faith, a visit to Makkah is the ultimate pilgrimage. The holiest city in Islam, birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the location where the Quran was first revealed to him, Makkah’s appeal is legendary and for centuries has attracted pilgrims embarking on the annual Hajj, or the shorter Umrah pilgrimage.
GETTING TO AND AROUND
Saudi Arabia is becoming increasingly well-connected. Welcoming international visitors, the Kingdom has increased its availability of tourist visas and the option of applying for visas on arrival for 49 different nationalities. Anyone holding a US, UK or Schengen visa in their passport is now eligible to apply for a tourist visa.
The country is serviced by a wealth of airline carriers that fly to its four international airports. These include Khalid International Airport (RUH) in Riyadh, King Abdulaziz International Airport (JED) in Jeddah, King Fahd International Airport (DMM) in Dammam, and finally, Prince Mohammad bin Abdulaziz International Airport (MED) in Medina. Complementing this network are 15 domestic airports which are convenient options for interconnecting the region with short-haul flights if you plan to cover much of the Kingdom.
Another popular way of covering KSA, especially for the adventurous, is via road trip. The country has a developing reputation as a road trip destination, with a wealth of options for car hire and myriad sights and destinations to plan a rewarding itinerary whatever your interests. Car hire is generally cost-effective and efficient, with rental providers mostly found at airports and within most major cities.
For travel within cities, taxis are widely available around popular locations, for instance shopping malls and public parks. Ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Careem are also increasingly popular, widely used alternatives.