Paris has the Champs Elysee, Louvre and Eiffel Tower.
London has the Eye, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace.
Maui has the volcanoes, beaches and whale watching.
What does Riyadh have? Well, for many it’s just a mystery, adding to the mystic that the entire kingdom has in tourism appeal.
And now the mystery is (almost) over. Soon, you will easily be able to travel to the kingdom and visit places you never imagined you could.
And there is plenty to see.
Look at your passport. Does it have any Saudi tourist stamp on it? Guaranteed not, unless you’re a pilgrim, but this is about to change.
The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) will announce details about tourist visas by the end of Q1 2018, after the approval by the commission’s board of directors, the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.
“Citizens from all the countries who have access to the Kingdom can obtain tourist visas,” Director of the Tourism and Heritage Authority in the Makkah region, Mohammed Al-Omari, told Arab News.
Saudi is aiming for 30 million visitors a year by 2030, up from 18 million in 2016.
Also the kingdom is set to see the highest proportionate increase in arrivals from China, up 35% on the 2016 figures, according to data released by Canadian consultancy Colliers International.
Saudi Arabia is investing $2.7bn into new entertainment projects and building a 334 sqkm sports and entertainment city in Riyadh to open by 2022 and include a Six Flags theme park for kids and adults.
But does Saudi have a clear tourism culture like other touristic cities around the world?
Saudi is home to two of the most sacred Islamic pilgrimage sites, Mecca and Medina, where people makes the journey of their lives, as many worshippers describe.
And still today, if you search for Saudi tourism on Google, the top two answers will likely be religious sites and monuments.
But, whereas in the past you could only stay the length of your Umra visa, today, things have changed.
“All Muslims from countries around the world can obtain a post-Umrah tourist visa, so when Umrah is finished they can become a tourist. This is called the extended Umrah visa for post-Umrah tourism,” Al-Omari says.
The number of Hajj pilgrims is envisaged to reach 2.5 million by 2020, with Umrah pilgrims expected to more than double to 15 million from around 7 million now, according to media reports.
But the spiritual journey that Mecca and Medina offer is only part of the story.
A land of wonders awaits discoverers.
The new virgin islands
Imagine pristine, clean, virgin sandy beaches that no human had ever stepped foot on. Where is that place?
Off the Red Sea islands, Virgin Owner Richard Branson was blown away by the opportunity to own a piece of coastal land where he can use his masterful marketing to attracts millions of people into the project which aims to turn 50 Saudi Arabian islands into luxury tourism destinations.
Surprisingly, Branson is the first non Saudi to invest in the red sea project.
UNESCO was taken aback by the beauty of Saudi. So much so that it inscribed the archaeological site of Al-Hijr aka Mada‘in Saleh as the first World Heritage property in the Kingdom.
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.
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.