WITH the world migrating towards greener energy at an increasing pace, many of the oil-rich nations in the Middle East have been fast-tracking plans to insulate their economic futures by becoming tourism meccas.
The nation that arguably started this race much too late is Saudi Arabia, a formerly unabashed closet kingdom which is now embarking on one of the most ambitious tourism reforms in human history.
Since unveiling its Vision 2030 strategy last year, Saudi Arabia has ramped up its investment in tourism to unprecedented levels, zooming past neighbouring countries like the UAE and Qatar to sell the message that Saudi Arabia is very much open to travellers.
The country has issued a whopping 3,500 tourism investment licenses in only the last 12 months, with government officials determined to make tourism account for 10% of GDP in less than eight years, and eyes firmly set on achieving the milestone of welcoming 100 million tourists a year.
The national carrier SAUDIA is also part of this grand visitor strategy, with the country’s Acting Deputy Minister for Investment Promotion, Saad Al-Shahrani, this week revealing that close to 100 new destinations will be added to the airline’s network by 2030.
Saudi Arabia is now the world’s largest investor in tourism, pumping US$810 billion into planned culture, leisure and entertainment projects over the next decade, with the lion’s share of the cash being invested in the ancient city of AlUla, the mountainous tourist hub of Al Souda, as well as US$500 billion in the Red Sean mega city project NEOM.
NEOM is particularly intriguing because of its sheer scale, technology focus and pledge to be fueled by 100% renewable energy once completed.
And while the desert area in Tabuk Province, located in the north-west of Saudi Arabia, is only in its construction infancy, the blueprints look more like a city from a science fiction film than any metropolis we can currently visit.
Plans show that the city will be enveloped by two 500-metre high, 170km-long mirrors, creating a futuristic look that will cut through the area’s natural dessert and mountain features.
NEOM will also feature hanging pathways, gardens and a stadium, in addition to a high-speed rail network with an end-to-end transit of just 20 minutes.