Saudi Arabia has thrown open its doors to the world. The kingdom, with its dramatic landscapes and varied topography, remains one of the last destinations largely untouched by mass tourism. All that is about to change.
The government on Friday opened the country to international tourists, announcing a new visa programme for citizens of 49 countries. The kingdom is aiming high: It wants tourism to account for upto 10 per cent of its annual gross domestic product, compared to the current 3 per cent. In pursuit of this goal, it is spending billions of dollars to improve infrastructure and develop heritage, cultural and entertainment sites. The tourism drive forms an integral part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 — a plan to reduce dependence on oil and diversify the economy.
Saudis are no strangers to foreign visitors. But most of these visitors are Muslim pilgrims who come to perform Umrah and Haj, in Makkah and Madinah. A majority of them come on tour packages that include stays only in these two cities, and Jeddah. Saudi Arabia wants to change all that. The kingdom aims to showcase its culture, ecology and deserts so that tourists can see the real Saudi Arabia. Its central, western and eastern regions offer unique experiences to visitors.
A treasure trove awaits tourists to Saudi Arabia. The new visa programme will help the world explore the kingdom, its rich cultural heritage and natural wonders.
The central region is home to the birthplace of modern Saudi Arabia — Riyadh. The modern metropolis, apart from being the capital and business centre, is also rich in history, with forts, palaces and museums, and colourful souqs. Here you can find Ad Diriyah, the original capital of the first Saudi state, which also houses the Al Turaif quarter, a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The western region hub is Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s oldest and liveliest city, and the gateway to Makkah. The crown jewel of Saudi tourism is not too far from Madinah: Madain Saleh. It is the biggest city of the Nabateans after Petra. Unlike the popular Jordanian tourist site, Madain Saleh — another Unesco World Heritage Site — is not well known outside Saudi Arabia. The highlight of the eastern region is Al Ahsa Oasis, which stands in the middle of the harsh and untamed plains of the Rub Al Khali (Empty Quarter). For millennia, this region’s fertile land was a hub for traders and caravans plying the ancient trade routes.
So a treasure trove awaits tourists to Saudi Arabia. The new visa programme will help the world explore the kingdom, its rich cultural heritage and natural wonders.