Over the course of the last two decades, countries across the Middle East have worked tirelessly to
attract visitors from all corners of the globe. Whereas once there was a stigma attached to travelling to the
region, now Oman, Bahrain and especially the UAE have transformed into major destinations that attract millions of tourists each year.
While cities such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Manama have become sprawling metropolises with towering skyscrapers and modern attractions, destinations such as Ras Al Khaimah, Salalah and Fujairah have made the most of their incredible natural landscapes that include beautiful beaches and picturesque mountain ranges. However, there is one country in the region that is viewed as the final frontier of tourism, and that is Saudi Arabia. The largest country in the Middle East and the fifth biggest in Asia, the Kingdom is the birthplace and spiritual home of Islam.
Rich in historic attractions and boasting a diverse landscape, each city has its own unique character, from the religious cities of Mecca and Medina to modern Riyadh and historic Madain Saleh – known as the second Petra.
There is a vast desert full of rich red dunes just waiting to be explored, while the pristine waters of the Red Sea are teeming with marine life. The breathtaking mountain scenery around Asir makes it the jewel in the Kingdom’s crown.
With so much to offer, it is little wonder that Saudi Arabia has ambitious plans when it comes to tourism. Having launched a visa regime for 49 countries and relaxed its strict dress codes for female visitors, the Kingdom wants to increase international and domestic visits to 100 million a year by 2030. The government also expects to create one million tourism jobs, thanks in large to a host of mega projects.
Creating must-visit destinations
While Saudi Arabia already boasts a number of fascinating cities and historic attractions, the government has recognised the need to construct new destinations that cater for a wider audience. Perhaps the most ambitious, and certainly the biggest, is the Red Sea Project.
The site itself encompasses an archipelago of more than 90 pristine islands, miles of sweeping desert and dramatic mountain landscapes. Set to become a luxury destination that could even rival the Maldives, there is a hope that it will also encourage visitors to explore the rich cultural heritage of the Red Sea Coast.
“The Red Sea Project is a year-round destination within three hours’ flying time of 250 million people and within an eight-hour flight for 80 percent of the world’s population,” said Steve Bowen, Director of PR & Communication, The Red Sea Development Company.
“Whether it’s swimming through the world’s fourth largest reef system, or hiking across the dormant Harrat Lunayyir lava fields, The Red Sea Project will offer a timeless experience to the wandering traveller, and an opportunity for them to experience the destination’s unique, stunning natural environment for the first time.
“Guests at The Red Sea Project will be able to stay in a variety of accommodation, both premium and luxury, in stunning inland resorts, mountain retreats and exclusive individual islands with overwater villas.
“We will welcome our first guests by the end of 2022, with the first phase of the development including 14 luxury hotels offering 3,000 rooms across five islands and two inland locations.
“On completion by 2030, the destination will feature around 50 hotels across 22 islands and six inland locations. It will welcome some 800,000 people per year with an annual cap of one million visitors.”
Another major project currently underway is the construction of an entertainment city just 40 minutes from the capital of Riyadh. Named Qiddiya, the destination will boast resorts, parks, theme parks and sporting
arenas. This will include a Six Flags amusement park. Upon completion, it is expected to be the largest tourism destination in the world, with a total area of more than 334 square kilometres.
The NEOM development is another hugely ambitious project that plans to transform an area of land along the
Red Sea coast into a futuristic mega-city that will be 33 times the size of New York City. Set to cost $500 billion, early suggestions are that the destination will utilise flying taxis, will be illuminated by a giant artificial moon and will have more Michelin-starred restaurants per capital than in any other city in the world.
Room for more
In total, these various mega tourism projects, implemented by the Public Investment Fund, will be spread across an area of more than 64,634 square kilometres and have a value exceeding US$810 billion. With this scale of investment, and with the aim of going from 15 million visitors a year to 100 million, Saudi Arabia has recognised the need to increase its hospitality offering.
Rotana will be opening three new hotels in the Kingdom in the first quarter of this year, adding 991 rooms to the Saudi Arabian market, but this is just the start as the country will need to significantly increase its offering in the decade ahead.
“Saudi Arabia and the whole market are really underserved, with 65,000 rooms across the whole country and with 35,000 of those in Mecca alone. There is a lot of activity in Saudi Arabia and it is a high focus market for us,” said Rotana CEO, Guy Hutchinson.
This would take Rotana’s portfolio of hotels in the Kingdom to nine, but this number is expected to rise quickly in the years ahead, especially if Saudi Arabia continues to focus heavily on tourism and establish themselves as the dominant country in the Middle East for overseas visitors.