DestinationsSaudi Arabia welcomes travellers to see past their preconceived notions of the country and experience its genuine hospitality and culture.

Inside Saudi Arabia’s vast ambitions for tourism

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Saudi Tourism Authority’s Alhasan Ali Aldabbagh looks to break stereotypes surrounding the country for travellers to truly enjoy Saudi Arabia's beauty and diversity.
Saudi Tourism Authority’s Alhasan Ali Aldabbagh looks to break stereotypes surrounding the country for travellers to truly enjoy Saudi Arabia's beauty and diversity.

The world has many preconceived notions of what it's like to live and travel in Saudi Arabia, something that Alhasan Ali Aldabbagh, in his role as Saudi Tourism Authority’s (STA) chief markets officer - Asia Pacific, only knows too well.

As the winds of socio-economic reforms blow through the Middle Eastern state, the Saudi tourism professional is encouraging international travellers to visit and witness the country’s diverse beauty – and massive transformation – before deciding for themselves what the country is about.

Saudi Arabia has experienced “a major transformation” since 2016 when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman introduced a wide-ranging set of socio-economic reforms to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil revenue, Alhasan stated. “We want the world to come and feel relaxed and comfortable in Saudi Arabia.”

Saudi Arabia is a safe destination where women can feel comfortable to visit. Women can dress modestly, there is no requirement for women to wear an abaya or cover their hair, and there is no religious police.

The role of women, for instance, has undergone profound changes in a country once known for its conservative regimes. When asked by Travel Weekly Asia if women would encounter issues travelling alone or with male companions in Saudi Arabia, Alhasan assured that there are no restrictions on female visitors' movements or dressing.

“Saudi Arabia is a safe destination where women can feel comfortable to visit. Women can dress modestly, there is no requirement for women to wear an abaya or cover their hair, and there is no religious police,” Alhasan stressed. “That is something that we're raising awareness about for now.”

While it continues to be a revered pilgrimage destination for Muslims, being home to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia is also swiftly shedding its reputation as an insular Islamic state amid its open approach to tourism, welcoming international travellers from all countries and segments to its shore.

Promoting a brand-new image of tolerance and openness in Saudi Arabia is thus among the key mandates for the STA, itself established in 2020 after the kingdom first opened its doors to tourism in 2019.

Home to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina (pictured), Saudi Arabia is also swiftly shedding its reputation as an insular Islamic state amid its open approach to tourism.
Home to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina (pictured), Saudi Arabia is also swiftly shedding its reputation as an insular Islamic state amid its open approach to tourism. Photo Credit: Adobe/Andrey Markelov

A firm believer and investor in tourism

For a country which has only burst into the global tourism landscape a few years ago, the Saudi authorities clearly have vast ambitions for tourism, allocating an initial tranche of US$4 billion budget for tourism development under the Saudi Tourism Development Fund.

Under the kingdom’s Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia has set a lofty goal of receiving 100 million visitors by 2030 to increase tourism’s contribution to the national GDP to 10% from the current 3%, according to Alhasan.

The World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC), during its Global Summit in Riyadh this week, has unveiled plans to launch huge investments worth more than US$10.5 billion in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, the country has also won the bid to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games in Trojena, and it is currently exploring a joint hosting bid for the 2030 FIFA World Cup with Egypt and Greece.

On the ground, massive developments are unfolding across Saudi Arabia at a dizzying pace, from the US$500 billion futuristic megacity of Neom to the Red Sea Development Project, an eco-focused luxury site comprising 22 islands and plans for 50 hotels and an international airport.

Major cities such as Riyadh already boast a wide spectrum of accommodation options – renowned luxury brands such as Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton and Rosewood are already present – while a pipeline of 500,000 rooms is set to be injected into Saudi Arabia by 2030.

Another notable goal for Vision 2030 is the plan to develop ports, destinations and excursions to attract cruise ships to ports in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.

The APAC connection

The Saudi authorities have taken major steps to ease access for international arrivals to the country. An e-visa programme was launched in 2018 to 49 countries worldwide, including Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, China, Kazakhstan, Brunei, Australia and New Zealand in Asia Pacific. 

These APAC countries also make up the key source markets for Saudi Arabia, with offices developed in several of these destinations. “APAC is contributing to 40% of total inbound to Saudi, which is huge. And we believe that we have the right products and offering to meet the expectations of all visitors,” said Alhasan.

As well, a free transit visa was recently launched to allow stopovers for up to 96 hours.

According to Alhasan, Saudi Arabia currently has 20 direct flights from APAC countries provided by carriers including Saudia, Malaysia Airlines, Air India, Philippines Airlines and Thai Airways, with more flight connections underway.

Historic places like Jeddah are a window into Saudi Arabia's cultural heart.
Historic places like Jeddah are a window into Saudi Arabia's cultural heart. Photo Credit: Adobe/Rahul

Power of tourism for people

Underneath these objectives belie the vision to unlock the wider value of tourism, including the creation of new jobs and the improvement of the quality of life in the country, explained Alhasan.

Tourism is also the perfect vehicle to connect people together, he added.

“When people connect, they discuss ideas together and explore opportunities, leading to good partnerships in business and collaboration in art, music and gastronomy. Tourism becomes a catalyst to open the door for a lot of other industries – education, medicine, etc – so that’s why it’s important.”

Saudi people have a very generous nature – this is the Arabian hospitality which is embedded in our DNA for thousands of years to host visitors in place and offer shelter and food until they are recharged.

What stands Saudi Arabia from other established destinations, said Alhasan, is its “undiscovered nature and that alone presents an opportunity for itself”.

Many cultural sites still await discovery in the country, from Jeddah’s UNESCO-protected historic quarter and the ancient city of AlUla on the incense route to Rijal Alma’a, a 1,000-year-old village recognised by UNWTO as among the world’s best in 2021.

Beyond the cultural sites, the country also offers many adventure possibilities for travellers, from scuba diving in the Red Sea to hot air ballooning and ziplining, said Alhasan, himself an avid motorbike rider. Saudi Arabia’s highest peak Jabal Sawda – known as the Black Mountain in English – is his particular favourite, due to its scenic landscapes, cool highland weather, varying terrain and some of the friendliest locals.

“Saudi people have a very generous nature – this is the Arabian hospitality which is embedded in our DNA for thousands of years to host visitors in place and offer shelter and food until they are recharged,” he noted. 

“The fact that tourists are now coming in to witness this will change the perceptions that they may have of the destination”.

For Alhasan, that would be akin to meeting the Saudi tourism goals: beating stereotypes by connecting people together.

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