Saudi Arabia is ready to rev its economic engines again. Only this time it won't be oil that accelerates growth
The kingdom’s attempt to diversify its economy heralds the beginning of the end of both the country’s – and the region’s – dependence on fossil fuels.
A new era beckons that is anchored in development projects grander than any Gulf plans that came before it.
Top of that list is a 26,000 sq km, $500bn economic city, Neom, on its western edge, powered by clean energy, that will connect both Egypt and Jordan with Saudi; a sovereign wealth fund that aims to control $2tr in cash and assets both foreign and domestic; and the IPO of a five percent stake in the crown jewel of its oil industry, Saudi Aramco.
But before any of that comes to pass, Saudi Arabia plans to become a world-class tourist destination.
Even at the turn of the decade, becoming a tourist hotspot is a future hardly anyone would have conceived for Saudi Arabia. Historically, visa restrictions and a lack of openness to visitors, especially unmarried women, are among the factors that have hindered Saudi Arabia’s prospects as a tourism destination.
But from April 1, according to Conde Nast Traveller, travel agencies and tour operators expect the country to start easing rules toward issuing 30-day general tourist visas to those who wish to explore the kingdom’s hidden treasures. This is said to include single women, who will now be able to travel without a male guardian.
Some rules will still apply. Reports suggest travel for unmarried women will be restricted to groups of four and any under 24 years of age might still need to be accompanied by a guardian. Visas will also need to be arranged through tour operators and itineraries planned in advance of the visit.
However, granting general tourist visas will be the first time the country is opening itself to the world in such a way. And it’s meant to help facilitate everything it is doing to transform its cultural fabric in ways that even now seem uncharacteristic. Not only are women being encouraged to participate in the workforce and drive cars, but the country is reopening cinemas, hosting concerts as well as film and comic festivals, organising sports tournaments, and is pitching itself as a viable leisure – and not just religious – tourism destination.
Saudi Arabia plans to nearly double the number of incoming travellers to 30 million within the next 12 years, up from 18 million in 2016 when it earned $11.9bn in tourism receipts.
The country has an obvious advantage in terms of potential for building on religious tourism, and much has been done to upgrade the infrastructure around the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, including the construction of a wide array of upscale and budget-friendly hotels. But the next step is realising the country’s tourism potential in the rest of the country.
Hidden treasures within Saudi Arabia include the Nabatean city of Madain Saleh, also known as Hegra, the southernmost and largest settlement south of the same Nabatean civilisation that built the celebrated Petra in southern Jordan.
Nearly 2,000 years old, the city, which is now on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, features more than 100 tombs with elaborate façades and interiors with inscriptions dating to late antiquity.
The Red Sea coast also has a number of sites capable of invigorating tourists.
Tabuk is known for being a hotspot for diving, as well as home to a nearly 500 year-old castle. Further south, the port city of Yanbu is another diving hotspot, known for its white sand beaches and family friendly resorts, while further south, Abha, the capital city of Aseer Province, is a popular destination for local travellers because of its lush green countryside, national parks and mud-built castles.
Off the coast of the Red Sea is also where Saudi Arabia is planning to convert 50 islands between the cities of Umluj and Al Wajh into a global tourism destination with laws, according to officials, “on par with international standards… to attract luxury travellers from around the globe”.
Financed by its sovereign wealth fund, the first phase of the project will be completed by 2022.
Aiding travel within the country will rely on the country’s airports. Saudi Arabia is currently pursuing a modernisation programme of more than 20 of its airports by 2022, including a $7.2bn upgrade to King Abdulaziz Airport in Jeddah.
In an interview with Arabian Business last year, Saudi Arabian airlines CEO Jaan Albrecht told us the new airport, the first phase of which is expected to be completed this year, will be a “game changer” for the country’s aviation and tourism prospects.
The upgrade will result in a world-class facility replete with duty free store and premium lounges, as well as runways that will allow up to 35 aircraft per hour, up from the current eight.
Saudi Arabian Airlines (Saudia) will then be able to connect travellers flying in to the country from abroad to its domestic subsidiary Flyadeal to connect it to onward destinations within the country.
The new airport will bring traffic “back to where it belongs,” said Albrecht at the time. “Does that mean everyone is going to fly through Jeddah? No. But it will be a new and attractive proposition to connect the kingdom to the world. And it’s something we’re serious about.” a