How Saudi Arabia is making itself a top tourism destination for a winter getaway

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Jeddah - Yasmine El Tohamy - RIYADH: When one thought of winter holiday destinations, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was rarely the first place that sprang to mind. But with a packed schedule of events lined up in the tourism and entertainment calendar this season, that appears set to change.

The Saudi Tourism Authority is holding a groundbreaking 17,000 events, making the Kingdom one of the world’s most happening winter destinations. From “Winter at Tantora” in AlUla to folklore festivals, Saudi Arabia is fast emerging as an unlikely favorite.

Just a few years ago, picnics on the corniche or gatherings in the desert were the pinnacle of winter entertainment in Saudi Arabia. This winter, however, travelers are arriving from all corners of the globe, drawn by the breadth of activities now on offer.

Just a few years ago, gatherings in the desert were the pinnacle of winter entertainment in Saudi Arabia. (SPA)

“Tourism in Saudi Arabia is going from strength to strength, playing a pivotal role in diversifying our economy through the creation of numerous job opportunities and supporting the private sector,” Abdullah Al-Dakhil, spokesperson and corporate communications director at the Saudi Tourism Authority, told Arab News.

“We’re rapidly advancing towards our Vision 2030 targets, with the support of the tourism ecosystem, now aiming for 150 million visits by 2030.”

The past year has been marked by several notable achievements. The Saudi Central Bank recently reported that visitor spending exceeded SR 100 billion ($26.6 billion) in the first three quarters of 2023.

On its third edition which ran until December 16, 2023,  Noor Riyadh — the world's largest light art festival, was another big crowd drawer. (RCRC photo)

Moreover, the UN World Tourism Organization recognized the Kingdom as the world’s second-fastest-growing tourism destination for the first quarter of last year.

Tourist numbers in Saudi Arabia saw a 142 percent surge in the first half of 2023, with 14.2 million visitors traveling to the Kingdom and a 132 percent increase in spending by inbound travelers during that same period, registered at SR 86.9 billion.

The Kingdom’s National Tourism Strategy had initially set a target of 100 million tourists annually by 2030. However, Ahmed Al-Khateeb, the Saudi minister of tourism, announced in October that this ambition had been revised up to 150 million.

In the first seven months of 2023, Saudi Arabia received 17 million international visitors with a view to accepting 30 million by year’s end.

This would mark a significant leap seeing as there were just 4.14 million inbound tourists in 2020, according to the Ministry of Tourism. In comparison, France, the world’s most visited country, received approximately 117 million inbound visitors in 2020.

Turaif District in Diriyah, Riyadh, is one of the Kingdom's seven UNESCO World Heritage sites. (DGDA photo)

“The Saudi Tourism Authority is committed to fostering growth in collaboration with our partners, showcasing Saudi’s unique and varied attractions, including our dynamic winter season with an array of family-friendly activities, and our seven UNESCO World Heritage sites, such as Hegra Archaeological Site in AlUla, Historic Jeddah, and Turaif District in Diriyah,” said Al-Dakhil.

“Looking ahead to 2024, Saudi will become more accessible with new flight routes, additional hotel accommodations, and our enhanced e-visa system. We are excited to welcome new visitors from around the globe.”

A general view of the peloton competing during the 3rd Saudi Tour 2023 - Stage 5 a 142.9km stage from AlUla Old Town to Maraya on February 03, 2023. (Getty Images)

Celebrity visitors, including Will Smith, Johnny Depp, Sofia Vergara, Alicia Keys, and Andrew Garfield, have already made visits to the Kingdom.

Jeddah’s Al-Balad has always been an attractive historical destination. Now a new calendar of cultural events has rejuvenated interest. In the coming months, it will host the Balad Al-Fann initiative and Voices of Al-Balad. 

Over in Riyadh, the Diriyah E-Prix takes place at the end of January followed by the Saudi Cup — the Kingdom’s prized equestrian event — in February. 4

Riyadh is also host to the Middle East’s first Disney Castle, featuring five zones and live musical shows, an immersive life-sized Monopoly board, virtual reality gaming at Metaworld, a unique experience for football fans at CR7 Signature Museum, and a fusion of art and cuisine at Layali Diriyah.

The 2023 Saudi Cup attracted over 1,400 entries, with horses from 22 countries participating at the King Abdulaziz Racecourse in Riyadh from Feb. 24 – 25.

On the Red Sea coast, meanwhile, the opening of the Kingdom’s new Red Sea International Airport in September has seen a flurry of reservations at the region’s new St. Regis Red Sea Resort, Nujuma Ritz Carlton Reserve, and Six Senses Southern Dunes. 

In the Kingdom’s northwest, AlUla’s relaxing getaway retreats and music festivals have already solidified its status as a year-round must-visit destination, but the AlUla Arts Festival in February will be a particular draw.

Visitors can also relax under captivating night skies until March 9 with stargazing at Gharameel or seek a thrill in a hot air balloon with unforgettable views of the region at the AlUla Skies Festival from April 10 to 17.  

AlUla’s ancient civilizations, positioned at the crossroads of trade, communicated with diverse cultures, many of which were heavily influenced by astronomy. (Instagram/experiencealula)

AlUla, included in the Conde Nast Traveler list “Seven Wonders of the World for 2023,” boasts some of the Kingdom’s oldest historic monuments, including Jabal AlFil (Elephant Rock), Hegra (previously named Madaen Saleh), and Dadan and Lihyan. 

Visitors can also catch a unique musical experience at AlUla’s awe-inspiring Maraya Concert Hall, an edifice covered in 9,740 mirrors, allowing it to blend seamlessly into the surrounding landscape, or walk into AlUla’s revived Old Town, which still contains remnants of original stone and mud brick buildings. 

A general view of the AlUla oasis. (RCA photo)

The Kingdom was not always brimming with so many entertainment options. Since the Saudi Tourism Authority’s establishment in 2020, the Kingdom has undergone a tremendous transformation, helping to drive the region’s post-pandemic tourism recovery.

Tourist arrivals in Saudi Arabia almost reached pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter of 2023, according to a report by HSBC Global Research.   

Previously, foreign tourism to Saudi Arabia was limited to special tour parties and pilgrims. That was until the Kingdom opened its doors to leisure tourism in 2019 with the introduction of a new e-visa. Since then, the industry has become one of its key economic drivers. 

“In the 1920s, the world came to Saudi for oil, but in the 2020s, we’re expecting the people of the world to come for tourism. That’s why we say that tourism is the new oil,” Fahd Hamidaddin, CEO of the Saudi Tourism Authority, said in a recent interview with The National. 

Its progress has not gone unnoticed. Saudi Arabia was deemed an industry game-changer in the World Travel Market 2023 yearbook. 

Last year, Saudi Arabia was the official host of World Tourism Day, an international day established by the UNWTO to celebrate the power of the sector in bridging cultures.

Performers from different nations helped enliven last year's Qeman International Festival for Mountain Performing Arts in Abha. (SPA)

And there are still several projects that are yet to come to fruition that will continue to revolutionize the events, entertainment, and tourism sector.

Sindalah, the Saudi dream island, will become a global yachting destination, while the mega-project NEOM has unveiled Norlana, an ultra-modern active lifestyle community in the northwest of the Kingdom.

Also on the horizon is the Kingdom’s first ski resort in Trojena, which will host the first winter sporting event held in an Arab country. 

Saudi Arabia has also won the bid to host the AFC Asian Cup in 2027 and its bid to host World Expo 2030. All eyes are now on whether the Kingdom will score a hat trick and win its bid to host the 2034 FIFA World Cup.

Jeddah Season 2023, which ran for 60 days from May, set a new attendance record of over 6 million people — the highest number in its short history. (SPA)

“In just a few years, Saudi has quickly risen to become the world’s most exciting new destination, providing the biggest opportunities in tourism today,” Hamidaddin said in a recent interview with WTM.

This rapid development is down to the Saudi government’s countless efforts to develop the Kingdom’s leisure, entertainment, and tourism sectors and to transform it into a global hub for visitors. 

Building upon the 2019 e-visa, which allowed 63 nationalities to visit the region, the Gulf Cooperation Council residents visa was announced in 2022, followed by the stop-over visa in 2023, which grants a complimentary one-night hotel stay when booking through the national carrier, SAUDIA. 

This could be followed in 2024 with a GCC-wide visa, allowing tourists to visit Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE all on the same visa.

Argentine football legend Lionel Messi during a visit with his family to Riyadh in May 2023. (File photo)

Last year also saw the launch of the Rethink Summer campaign and a return visit by Saudi tourism ambassador Lionel Messi alongside his family. 

It also saw the growth of collaborations with international entities, a Saudi Tourism Authority roadshow in India, the signing of a memorandum of understanding with the Group, and the hosting of a two-week Saudi Culture Exhibition in Paris.

Saudi Arabia is currently the biggest tourism investor in the world with investments expected to reach $800 billion by 2030. An additional $550 billion will be dedicated to developing tourist destinations. 

As travelers consider their options for a last-minute winter getaway, many will no doubt be making Saudi Arabia their first choice. 


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