In just a couple of years, Saudi Arabia has made immense strides to instigate a series of reforms and opening up to the world. On World Tourism Day on Friday, the country took yet another step in that direction, with Riyadh announcing that it will open the gates for people from 49 countries to apply for three-month tourist visas. Included will be unaccompanied women over the age of 24, who will be able to travel freely without guardians and with a less restrictive dress code.
In a previously conservative Kingdom that often appeared distant to much of the world, these are groundbreaking steps, in line with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's dynamic Vision 2030. At the heart of the reforms, which include billions being pumped into the entertainment sector and the relaxation of laws relating to women and guardianship, is a plan to diversify from an oil-dependent economy and welcome tourists, who currently account for 3 per cent of the country's gross domestic product but it is hoped will make up 10 per cent of GDP by 2030.
History, religion and heritage are the bedrocks of Saudi society. As the birthplace of Prophet Mohammed and with Makkah and Madinah, Islam’s two holiest cities, within its borders, Saudi Arabia welcomes millions of pilgrims every year. Until now, there have been few visitors without religious or familial ties to the country. Thus to the outside world, Saudi Arabia’s rich culture and its historical sites dating back tens of thousands of years have remained a mystery.
The world will now have a chance to marvel not only at Saudi Arabia’s religious monuments but its ancient wonders. They include five Unesco world heritage sites, such as Madain Saleh in the Hejaz province, a former colony that stands testament to the grandeur of the Nabateans, who lived in the region and also built rose-tinted Petra in Jordan, until the Romans swept them out of power in 106AD. Their 111 stunningly decorated sandstone tombs carved into colossal rock formations still stand proud, 2,000 years on. Then there is the intricate Neolithic rock art found in the northern region of Hail, dating back 10,000 years, and the remnants of an ancient port city in the heart of modern-day Jeddah. The city’s singular architecture dates back to the 7th century AD and reflects a construction style once common to cities on both sides of the Red Sea. Today, well-preserved ruins relating to this architectural heritage are rarely found outside the Kingdom.
In addition to its cultural legacy, the country is looking to expand its horizons and open up to luxury visitors with tourist hotspots such as the Red Sea Project, an eco-friendly complex with white sandy beaches reminiscent of the Maldives, due to be completed in 2022.
Sports fans have already gotten a glimpse of the increasingly diverse scope of events that the country can host. The Kingdom has been hosting WWE wrestling events since 2014 and in December, it is preparing to host the rematch between boxing champions Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz. The construction of Qiddiya entertainment city near Riyadh has already begun and will include a theme park, motorsport facilities and a safari area.
Whether they are looking for a history tour of a pivotal spot in the Arabian Peninsula, entertainment or a luxury getaway, Saudi Arabia remains uncharted and exciting new territory for the adventurous visitor. Enabling more people to visit from diverse backgrounds will allow little-known wonders to be appreciated. In an age of social media, it won’t take long for the word to spread that Saudi Arabia is waiting to be discovered.