From desert sands to digital dreams: Saudi Arabia’s tourism revolution

Tourism accounts for one out of every five jobs formed
From desert sands to digital dreams: Saudi Arabia’s tourism revolution
Saudi concept

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s transformation into a center of tourism aligns with the reshaping of travel in a post-pandemic era. The recent announcement of an $800 Billion investment in KSA tourism over the upcoming decade underscores the Kingdom’s determination to establish itself as the premier destination in the Middle East. The region won’t be playing catch up – or trying to be the ‘Vegas’ or ‘Paris’ of the Middle East. Instead, it is crafting its own quintessential vision for tourism. But how will Saudi Arabia achieve this?

Redefining travel as an experience

The transformation begins by reimagining travel as a precursor to the experience, not solely a component of it. For instance, the journey starts with the airline and extends through the gateway airport. Those familiar with Changi Airport will grasp the significance of the traveler’s experience, not just the destination. It’s becoming a reality in Saudi Arabia. With the introduction of Riyadh Air as a second airline and significant upgrades to Riyadh and Jeddah International airports, the Kingdom aims to provide exceptional experiences throughout the traveler’s journey.

Embracing hybrid realities

The pandemic showed us that our inherent desire for human experiences is accompanied by a rising interest in creating digital twins of the physical world. We can explore the world from our laptops. And why wouldn’t we? As we enhance the physical world with geolocation-specific digital content, experiences should reflect this hybrid approach. The Kingdom pioneers this innovation, exemplified by places like NEOM, seamlessly integrating the physical and digital realms for visitor interaction.

 Seamless Logistics

The e-visa is the epitome of convenience. And while it may seem easy to implement, the reality is that increasingly powerful technological layers underpin the frictionless experience. The upcoming Red Sea resorts will showcase how automated systems being developed will resolve typical tourist pain points. In Dubai, biometric tunnels will soon eliminate passport barriers.

Change as a catalyst for culture

The influx of tourists, the emergence of new ventures in this thriving economic sector, and the resulting multiplier effect will generate enormous new opportunities, catalyzing Saudi culture. Consider sports, for instance. Any sports enthusiast will tell you that Saudi Arabia currently feels like the center of the world, and with good reason. While the PGA’s merger with upstart Liv has caused a stir in the golfing realm, the arrival of world-class footballers now residing in Saudi Arabia offers the country a chance to exhibit its renowned hospitality. These players are now first-hand witnesses to a nation’s ascent, not only as a sports powerhouse but also as a leader in one of the world’s most forward-thinking country transformations. This narrative will be amplified to their followers worldwide.

Thus, it’s unsurprising that HE Fahd Hamidaddin labeled tourism the “new oil,” a sector accounting for one out of every five jobs formed.

However, tourism isn’t the sole catalyst for change in the region. The planned new urban developments will also yield a significant long-term impact.

Read: Upcoming attractions in Saudi worth waiting for

The U.N. predicts that the world’s population will approach 10 billion by 2050, leading to a growing populace in densely packed urban zones. NEOM, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s most forward-looking urban development, is planning with this in mind, aiming to draw the innovators and trendsetters of the future to an unparalleled new city. Unlike the past, where cities grew organically along trade-conducive ports and riverbanks, NEOM preserves these crucial geographical traits while also incorporating an intelligent city infrastructure primed for the upcoming artificial intelligence boom. It epitomizes Saudi Arabia’s new urban development vision.

There are three important development perspectives to consider.

1- The macro perspective – global cities

It is critical to attract new capital and talent to support the Kingdom’s global powerhouse status as both the G20’s key Arab member and rumored BRICS member. These new cities are established and recognized as special economic zones, allowing for easier trade and economic hub status, positioning them as key trading posts in the global system that connects East and West. And their importance can be seen in China’s much-heralded Belt and Road Initiative.

Saudi Arabia is modernizing and upgrading its infrastructure. Both Riyadh and Jeddah are undergoing dynamic shifts in their master plans to ensure that they are the two key engines of growth.

2- The micro perspective – regional cities and downtowns

While much attention has been paid to the large urban city populations of Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam, Vision 2030 has sought to shed light on the lesser-known but highly eclectic regional cities that make up the rich and diverse tapestry of modern Saudi Arabia. From the forests and mountains of Abha and Rose Centre of Taif in the south to the snow-capped mountains of Tabuk in the north, these smaller urban centers are being enhanced and upgraded to ensure that they are ready for increased domestic tourism, and to ensure that they remain economically prosperous and develop in a sustainable manner.

Placemaking – prioritizing people over infrastructure

Placemaking’s significance can’t be overstated. It vitalizes urban architecture by uniting individuals, spaces and processes to animate public areas – an intersection of ideas, commerce, and people. The experience economy offers economic diversity, from souks to squares, fostering in-person alternatives to online gaming. The Ministry of Culture arranges countless events to preserve heritage, fostering identity. Riyadh Art highlights public art’s impact on life quality. Urban development focuses on livable cities, like King Salman Park, sprawling seven times larger than London’s Hyde Park.

Saudi Arabia aims to double visitors by revamping experiences and urban futures. Emerging lifestyles and travel invent new business avenues. Beyond deserts, the Kingdom is evolving, melding physical and virtual realms for innovation, culture and human connection.

Adel Noueihed is managing director of Imagination Middle East.

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