As President Trump touched down recently in the eagerly awaiting Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, rumors began flying, stoked by princes and palace intrigue, that the insular realm is getting ready to roll open its gates to tourism.
That hope may only be half right, however, as tourism in Saudi terms may be focused mostly on the Saudis themselves.
Under the Kingdom’s National Transformation Plan, the centerpiece of its coveted Vision 2030, the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage (SCTH) is currently investing some $7 billion in tourism-focused initiatives around the country.
“The worldwide exhibition for incentive travel, meetings and events in Frankfurt, has been the perfect place for us to meet thousands of influential event and meetings buyers face-to-face and to show them the opportunities in Saudi Arabia and many superb facilities that we could offer them,” says Tariq A. Al-Essa, Executive Director of the Saudi Exhibition and Convention Bureau.
However, if the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is taking these initiatives a bit further and opening up for leisure or group tourism, few tour operators, if any, have been informed. Few Western companies have been running scheduled departures into Saudi Arabia in recent years. The border seemed to close around five years ago when the KSA stopped issuing tourist visas.
“It’s been very difficult to do tourism-focused business in Saudi Arabia,” says Klaus Billep, president of Los Angeles-based Universal Travel Systems (UTS). “You can still go if you are a corporate traveler and can prove you have business there. However, even if this is so, if you try to go through a consulate to get your visa you will find yourself getting very frustrated and making repeated trips back to the consulate offices. They are very, very strict. For instance, they may demand to see proof that you are married through an official marriage certificate when you have been married for several decades and might not have this document at your fingertips.”
UTS still handles business visa requests for clients who do not want to be burdened with this onerous task and the travel company knows its ways around visa concerns, but Mr. Billep notes he has not taken a leisure travel group there for several years.
One U.S.-based tour company still does work with Saudi Arabia, providing one or two pricey tours annually through a long-standing and hard-wrought relationship with the Kingdom. Mountain Travel Sobek, known mostly to adventure travelers for running hiking and rafting trips in far-flung corners of the world, takes one or two groups a year to Saudi Arabia, and is the only U.S.-based company at present able do so.
Those trips involve small collections of ten or so participants four-wheeling into the mountains and vast Empty Quarter to visit treasures protected over the many centuries by dry air and a dearth of visitors. One amazing take-in is a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site at Madain Saleh, where some 140 monumental tombs as intricate and magnificent as the Treasury at Petra in Jordan, spread out over 10 miles. The most imposing of the tombs is Qasr Al Farid, carved from a single sandstone monolith, originally discovered by Charles Doughty, a British explorer who came upon it in 1876.
For business travelers from the U.S. who may already be headed to Saudi Arabia for meetings or corporate matters, the Kingdom is wide open for visiting and touring. As a rare guest within these boundaries, travelers should set out to target the top wonders of the country knowing it could be difficult to come this way again. Arrangements can usually be made through the concierge desk at international hotels.
Jeddah and Riyadh: Tourism and Business Meccas
The primary cities of commerce and government in Saudi Arabia also have their high points. These are Jeddah and Riyadh, the capital. Riyadh has made pronouncements of wanting to attract 88 million tourists to this city by 2020, however, some 85 percent of them would be local or from the neighboring Gulf countries. Saudi Arabia has a large and fast-growing population, which is forecast to grow to 37.6 million in 2025. Tourism efforts are more focused on getting Saudis on the road locally than bringing in curious westerners. While 18 million foreign visitors came to last year, nearly all came on pilgrimage to Mecca, rather than to experience the country’s other sights.
Riyadh is increasingly investing in becoming a regional hub for business and logistics. Jeddah, renowned for its influx of pilgrims, is positioning the city as a key cultural center.
Local construction overview reports show Saudi Arabia will see a record 68 new hotels open by the end of 2017, adding 29,033 hotel rooms to the current 175,000 across its major cities.
Brands include Rocco Forte, TIME, Nobu, Swiss-Belhotel and the highly anticipated Abraj Kudai Towers, which will become the world’s biggest hotel when it opens its 10,000 rooms in Mecca in Q4. Recent openings include properties by Movenpick and Hilton.
Other pipeline projects that could drive tourism include a Six Flags-branded theme park in Riyadh. That city that is also looking at the opening of two new major shopping malls: Mall of Saudi, with 3.2 million square feet of retail and entertainment space, a large snow park and hotels; and The Avenues Riyadh, a $1.9 billion shopping complex. Meanwhile, Jeddah is busy planning Jeddah Tower, which will the world’s tallest building when completed in 2018, at 3,307 feet.
Finally, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently announced the building of a new entertainment mega-city just outside of Riyadh: Al-Qidiya. The project, to start next year for completion in 2022, will actually be nine cities or sections focused on entertainment and educational experiences, perhaps a Disneyland of sorts, if that park ran from Los Angeles to San Diego.
Carpet Rides to the Kingdom
Getting to Saudi Arabia usually means a ride on Saudia, the Kingdom’s royal airline that boasts regular and frequent non-stop schedules from New York, Washington/Dulles, Los Angeles and Toronto via some of the youngest fleets in the business. The flights have first class cabins made up of a dozen fully private suites, a new business class in diamond configuration with fully lie-flat seats and amenities, and an economy class that has won awards for its generous passenger space designs.
The flights take 15 hours, give or take, and landing is about to get a lot easier with new airport construction in Jeddah and Riyadh. King Khaled International Airport, about 22 miles north of Riyadh, will have five terminals (it currently has four and is building a fifth), a very large mosque, one of the world’s tallest control towers and a new Royal terminal for royalty, heads of state and VIPs.
King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah is nearing the completion of a new airport that will be a far cry from what currently ranks first place on a CNN survey of the world’s worst airports. The project allows the city to receive 80 million passengers a year, up from 13 million, and will have a special Hajj Terminal set up specifically for handling pilgrims, including access to direct rail service to Mecca and Medina. The airport facility is expected to be cutting edge in design and offerings, according to one insider, able to handle with a variety of comfort amenities, shopping and entertainment, the thousands of transit or “sixth freedom” passengers that come through the airport each year.
On Saudia flights from the U.S., business travelers can expect to have plenty of company. Except for Saudi students (there are some 80,000 or more in the U.S.) heading home for vacation, the primary passenger will be a diplomat or corporate traveler.
Lark Gould is an award-winning journalist who has been covering travel and the travel industry more than three decades. You can read more at Travel-Intel and eTravel.news.