Richard Branson wasn’t likely just attracted to the idea that there were 50 virgin islands off the Saudi Red Sea when Virgin Group, his company, signed on recently to help develop them.
No. He had an inkling that something big was going to be announced to help occupy these islands with people.
He must have known that tourist visas would have to be issued, especially that the first phase of the project will be completed in 2022.
That’s exactly what happened.
Saudi recently announced that the Kingdom’s borders would be open to regular tourism, not just pilgrimage, business or work.
A tourism magnet?
If you search for Saudi tourism on Google today, the top two answers will likely be religious sites and religious monuments.
There are good reasons for that.
Saudi is home to two of the most sacred Islamic pilgrimage sites, Mecca and Medina.
Mastercard released in May a report saying that more than 156 million Muslim travellers would be spending $220bn each year between 2016 and 2020.
The Kingdom now wants to invite hordes more to other sites.
Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Natural Heritage, told CNN last Wednesday that the Kingdom aimed to start issuing tourist visas to foreigners next year, as part of the government’s 2030 Vision aimed at creating new sources of revenues to diversify its economy.
“The targets are people who want to come and literally experience this country, and really the grandness of this country,” Abdulaziz said.
“The government would use online technology to make applying for visas easy.”
The Vision’s economic reforms aim to lift total tourism spending in the country to $46.6bn in 2020 from $27.9bn in 2015. It’s aiming for 30 million visitors a year by 2030, up from 18 million in 2016.
Those numbers include a portion of what Saudis would normally spend abroad, $20bn annually abroad, according to Sultan, and who now would need to be convinced somehow to keep their Riyals within the Kingdom’s tourism offerings.
NEOM city investors like SoftBank have taken their cue from Branson and deployed up to $15 billion in the planned $500bn city by the Red Sea and another $10bn in the Saudi Public Investment Fund, holders of the Aramco shares, five per cent of which should be sold in 2018.
Investors better realise soon that nothing will prevent the Kingdom from opening up to opportunities away from oil.
The Kingdom intends to open up visits to historic sites, such as Mada‘in Saleh. According to UNESCO, the Archaeological Site of Al-Hijr (Madâin Sâlih) is the first World Heritage property to be inscribed in Saudi Arabia. It is the largest conserved site of the civilization of the Nabataeans, south of Petra in Jordan. It features well-preserved monumental tombs with decorated facades dating from the first century BC to the first century AD. The site also features some 50 inscriptions of the pre-Nabataean period and some cave drawings.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia is investing $2.7bn into new entertainment projects. But even before that, in April, the Kingdom announced the launch of a 334 sqkm sports and entertainment city in Riyadh to open by 2022 and include a Six Flags theme park for kids and adults.
King Fahd’s Fountain, also known as the Jeddah Fountain, is the tallest of its type in the world with seawater ejecting approximately 200m above the ground and can be seen from around the city.
Part of the King Abdulaziz Historical Centre in Riyadh, the National Museum of Saudi Arabia is a major national contemporary museum showcasing the history of people, religion and government in Saudi Arabia.
The International Medical Travel Journal (IMTJ) said in 2017 that medical tourism in Saudi Arabia was mostly outbound, as visa rules restricted inbound medical tourism. It added that the Kingdom stated that it wanted to become a destination for medical tourists.
“Faisal Banjar founded Arabian Gulf Medical Tourism Agency in 2014 and became an agent for the 600-bed Dr. Soliman Fakeeh Hospital to bring foreign patients for treatment. He is still waiting to bring his first client to the hospital,” said IMTJ.
To boost revenues and create a thriving tourism segment in the private sector, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage has endorsed a proposal that combines religious and medical tourism to attract the world’s 1.6 million Muslims who often seek spiritual solace during a health crisis.