In July this year, I was fortunate enough to have been given the opportunity to explore some of Saudi Arabia’s most breathtaking destinations —Taif, Al-Baha, Abha and Jazan– during a four-day tour of the Kingdom organized by the Saudi Tourism Authority for its Saudi Summer campaign.
The success of the Saudi Summer campaign is indisputable. It opened up the Kingdom for people like me to see and experience its stunning beauty, diverse cultures and rich heritage, and allowed tourists to relax, take a breath and break free from their daily routines. The campaign was also hugely beneficial for the Saudi economy, which, despite the impact of the pandemic, saw a 31 percent increase in domestic tourism between July and September — the duration of the Saudi Summer campaign — compared with the same period in 2019.
Although this year’s Saudi Summer campaign has officially ended, tourism continues to boom within Saudi Arabia. On Aug. 27 Saudi Arabia became the first country in the Middle East to restart cruise ship holidays. The Red Sea Spirit is one such cruise and I have just returned from this all-inclusive four-night luxury experience.
The cruise sails from the King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) in Jeddah to Ras Al-Abyadh and Sindalah Island, two stunning locations on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast. On board this floating palace, I enjoyed a lavish serviced suite and a choice of eight restaurants serving exquisite food, not to mention an extensive range of recreational activities and live entertainment that suited all tastes.
We left the port at KAEC late in the afternoon and sailed through the night to Ras Al-Abyadh, which, as its name suggests, has spectacular white sand beaches and crystal-clear blue waters. The beach offers an extensive variety of water sports activities, including diving, jet skiing, water skiing and the largest inflatable waterpark in the region. I opted to go diving among the vibrant coral reefs of the Red Sea, which most divers agree are arguably some of the best in the world.
We departed from Ras Al-Abyadh late in the afternoon and traveled north overnight towards Sindalah Island. The weather and the beautiful beaches on the island make it the perfect location for spending the day relaxing and unwinding.
As the evening drew in, I was treated to one of the most magical sunsets I have ever seen while dining at one of the superb restaurants that serve the island.
Leaving Sindalah in the early hours of the morning, we spent the next day sailing back down to KAEC, the longer journey allowing us to take full advantage of the facilities on board the Red Sea Spirit.
Sindalah Island is located in NEOM, an initiative of the Saudi Vision 2030 plan to diversify the Saudi economy. The vision looks to increase tourism across Saudi Arabia, attracting 100 million visitors to the Kingdom by 2030 and creating 1 million new jobs. It is anticipated that tourism will increase from 3 to 10 percent of Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product by 2030.
The progress made in 2020 has shown that Saudi Arabia is well on track to achieving these goals and becoming a top global tourist destination. This is a sentiment shared by the UN World Tourism Organization, which on Sept. 17 approved the opening of a regional office in Riyadh to serve as the Middle East hub for the organization. With Saudi Arabia in a lead role, the office will support 13 countries across the region as they develop their tourism industries and attract visitors from around the world. This show of confidence in Saudi Arabia’s budding tourism sector is all the more remarkable given that the Kingdom only opened its borders to tourists one year ago.
The opportunities stemming from tourism in Saudi Arabia are endless and will be fundamental in further developing our country — for its economy, its people and its future. The Saudi Summer campaign supported businesses — both large and small — across the tourism sector and beyond, with hotels, restaurants and activity companies all seeing a surge in trade. It created seasonal employment, helped to maintain more established jobs in the industry and allowed families and individuals across the Kingdom to open the doors of their homes, farms and summer houses for short-term rentals for tourists, increasing their income and boosting the national economy.