Published on : Thursday, February 8, 2018
The King Abdulaziz festival is something of a dress rehearsal for Saudi Arabia’s opening night. The kingdom will soon start issuing traveller visas for the first time, opening up one of the last frontiers of global tourism.
Falling oil prices and to accept modernization has pushed tourism to the forefront of the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030, which is a blueprint to prepare the biggest Arab economy for the post-oil era.
Saudi tourism officials announced last month that electronic visas would be made available to “all nationals whose countries allow their citizens to visit” by the end of March. Their hope is to double the annual number of visitors to 30 million by 2030.
Tourism could very well feature in the agenda when Crown Prince Mohammed visits London this month. The exact date of the diplomatically sensitive visit has so far been kept a secret.
Riyadh is preparing for a change. Work is nearly complete on an 85-station metro line, the country’s first ever public transport network. Multiplex cinemas, returning to the kingdom after a 30-year ban, are coming up across the capital. A 200 square mile (518 square kilometres) “entertainment city” will feature a safari and theme park when it opens in 2021.
Jarrod Kyte, of the UK-based travel agency Steppes said, “Because Saudi has been behind closed doors for so long, people have become incredibly curious. They want to tick off the most conservative country on Earth. Once the kingdom begins granting tourist visas to the UK – which we’re told will be very soon – we’ll have no shortage of people wanting to go.”
There would also be package tours, which would include some of the world’s least-explored heritage sites, including Mada’in Saleh, home to the best preserved Nabataean tombs, Al-‘Ula, a 2000-year-old ghost town made of stone and mud, and Sakaka, listed by UNESCO for its ancient standing stones. The kingdom also plans to turn 50 islands on the pristine Red Sea coastline into luxury resorts to rival Middle East hotspots such as Dubai and Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt.