Saudi Arabia boosted its tourism credentials in 2021: mega-projects and music festivals

A number of hotel openings, new direct flights and large-scale events are heralding in a new era for the country's hospitality industry

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From music festivals and mega-projects to hotel openings and new direct flights, 2021 has been a year of new beginnings for Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom has spearheaded a raft of new developments over the past year and is all set to continue in the same vein in 2022.

While the kingdom was once best known for its religious tourism or for business travel to Jeddah and Riyadh, destinations such as AlUla are presenting a whole new side to the country.

Part of the country's ambitious 2030 plan to bring Saudi Arabia to the world, historic AlUla, home to the country’s first Unesco heritage site at Hegra, continues to expand its offering, with experiences such as Hegra After Dark and art events such as Desert X AlUla 2022.

The 52-hectare ancient city in the north-western part of the country welcomed its first direct flight from Dubai in November, opening up options for a whole new generation of intrepid travellers. Saudi airline flynas now runs three direct flights a week from Dubai into AlUla International Airport.

To accommodate the anticipated influx of tourists, several new hotels will open in the area next year, to cater to the growing number of visitors attending events and festivals such as Winter at Tantora. Luxury eco resort Habitas is the latest to open, resting in an ancient oasis in the desert canyons of the Ashar Valley, surrounded by sandstone cliffs and palm groves. The resort adds a much-needed 96 guest rooms to AlUla’s inventory.

Oliver Ripley, co-founder and group chief executive of Habitas, says direct flights mark a milestone moment for travel to AlUla and will allow the destination to be discovered by international tourists. However, there is still some work to do to shift traditional perceptions of Saudi Arabia as a destination, he says.

“International perception of Saudi Arabia is shifting steadily, but there is still a lack of awareness of the cultural highlights and historical heritage Saudi Arabia offers. It is steeped in surprising culture and history of global significance, dating back to historic trade routes and the pilgrimage to Mecca.”

Global hotel chains are investing heavily in the country, fuelled by its newfound openness and the fact tourist visas can now be secured online for many nationalities. This year, Marriott signed a number of agreements for new properties in the country, including the world’s largest Aloft, The Jeddah Edition, and JW Marriott Riyadh.

Our development pipeline in the kingdom is Hilton’s biggest across the Middle East
Jochem-Jan Sleiffer, president, Middle East, Africa and Turkey, at Hilton

Hilton, too, has major expansion plans in the country. This year, Hilton Garden Inn launched in Riyadh’s Financial District and a further three openings are scheduled for 2022. Jochem-Jan Sleiffer, president, Middle East, Africa and Turkey, at Hilton, says with international tourism new to the kingdom, the world is “excited” to see what the country has to offer.

“We currently operate 15 hotels, with another 46 under development and plans to expand our operations to more than 75 properties in the next few years, including the introduction of new brands such as LXR Hotels & Resorts, Curio Collection by Hilton, Canopy by Hilton, and Embassy Suites by Hilton. This makes our development pipeline in the kingdom Hilton’s biggest across the Middle East.”

The company also plans to recruit 10,000 people in Saudi Arabia in the next 10 years, half of which will be Saudi nationals, representing a huge boost to the economy.

Food and beverage operators, both regional and international, are also recognising the potential of the country. Michelin-lauded chefs, celebrity brands and home-grown concepts are all carving a space for themselves in the kingdom.

In AlUla, Britain’s celebrated chef Jason Atherton, owner of numerous Michelin-starred restaurants globally, launched his latest project, Maraya Social, on the rooftop of the extraordinary Maraya Concert Hall, the world’s largest mirrored building.

Global brand Roka opened in Riyadh this year, signalling the arrival of a new wave of luxury restaurants in the country. The London-born Japanese spot has won accolades around the world and has branches in major cities such as Dubai, New York, Rome and now Riyadh.

Dubai's Mohalla, an Indian restaurant in Dubai Design District, is opening its second branch this month, in Riyadh. Panchali Mahendra, managing director of Atelier House Hospitality, says the popularity of Indian food in the kingdom made this an obvious next move.

“The Saudi Arabian food and beverage market is new, hungry and open,” she says, while acknowledging that progress is needed when it comes to skilled manpower, resources, visas and accessibility. “I envision Saudi Arabia will be a country to watch out for in the next five years, depending on the liberalisation and relaxation of certain rules and regulations in the country."

Prospects are bright. Saudi Arabia established itself as a leading dance music destination with the XP Music Conference and Soundstorm festival in December. Held back-to-back, both events featured an array of performances and discussions by star DJs. Modelled similarly to the Amsterdam Dance Event, the three-day XP Music Conference began in Riyadh on December 13, gathering leading figures from the dance music industry at the Jax District for panel sessions during the day, followed by concerts at night.

The event acted as a precursor for Soundstorm, a mammoth four-day music festival held in the outskirts of the Saudi capital in mid-December. With more than 150 artists performing across six stages, including popular DJs David Guetta and Afrojack, the event welcomed more than 700,000 people, according to organisers.

“The future of dance music is bright in Saudi Arabia,” Afrojack told The National. “There is genuine desire in building the genre here and to play to such an excited and knowledgeable crowd is a beautiful thing to see.”

Other major cultural events that took place recently in the kingdom include Jeddah's inaugural Red Sea International Film Festival, for which stars from across the world descended on the city, plus the first Diriyah Biennale in Riyadh, which marks Saudi Arabia as significant player in contemporary art, and brings together works by 63 artists from the kingdom and abroad.

The country’s intentions continue to be made evident through the launch of ambitious mega-projects. Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched the master plan for Jeddah Central Project, formerly known as New Jeddah Downtown. The 75 billion Saudi riyals ($19.9 billion) project will involve the development of 5.7 million square metres of land overlooking the Red Sea.

The project will be anchored by four key landmarks: an opera house, museum, sports stadium and oceanarium, in addition to 17,000 residential units and 2,700 hotel rooms, as well as a marina, beach resorts, restaurants, cafes and retail facilities.

The waterfront project is 9.5 kilometres long and is flanked by a promenade and 2.1km beach. Open spaces and public services account for 40 per cent of the project’s footprint, with the provision of plenty of walking areas. The project will be completed in three phases, the first of which is due for completion by the end of 2027.

Another major project to keep an eye on in 2022 is the Red Sea Development Project. Chief executive John Pagano calls it “one of the world's most ambitious regenerative destinations … pioneering a new relationship between luxury travel and the natural environment with multi-dimensional offerings across nature, adventure, culture and wellness”.

Pagano is confident it will create a thriving tourism ecosystem that will advance the domestic economy. More than 800 contracts have been signed to date, worth nearly Dh20 billion. “Our first phase of development remains on track to welcome our first guests by the end of 2022,” he says.

Upon completion in 2030, the site will host 50 hotels offering up to 8,000 keys and about 1,000 residential properties across 22 islands and six inland sites. Looking ahead, the future is exciting, he says. “We are also developing an international airport that will be accessible by 80 per cent of the world’s population in less than eight hours and expected to serve up to one million passengers per year by 2030.”

Updated: December 23, 2021, 12:53 PM