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Keys to the Kingdom

Much as a woman attired in burqa and veil may show her face for a flash before disappearing into the dark of all her robes, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia may be ready to reveal its face to tourism again, although efforts remain fleeting and mostly obscure for now.

Travelers have long looked on the Kingdom as a bucket-list destination to visit, given that the world’s most iconic tourism spots are increasingly teeming with Instagrammers and selfie enthusiasts.

But the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia continues to remain off limits for all but the most hardy corporate travelers. Wary of Western influence, KSA ensconces itself in a world of its own.

Yet the times may be changing. The current US president made a visit to the Kingdom on his first foreign foray in office and IMEX Frankfurt recently concluded a conference that for the first time featured the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a key exhibitor for MICE topics and concerns.

“The worldwide exhibition for incentive travel, meetings and events, IMEX in Frankfurt, has been the perfect place for us to meet thousands of influential event and meetings buyers face-to-face and to show them the opportunities in Saudi Arabia and many superb facilities that we could offer them,” says Tariq A. Al-Essa, executive director of the Saudi Exhibition and Convention Bureau.

And in the latest, and perhaps most definitive development, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, who also chairs the Public Investment Fund, announced at the end of July the launch of an international tourism project along the Red Sea coastline between the cities of Amlaj and Al-Jawh. Working in cooperation with the world’s largest hotel companies, the development – dubbed the Red Sea Project – aims to create new coastal resorts in a 13,000-square-mile area that encompasses more than 50 natural islands.

The Red Sea Project is part of the Kingdom’s National Transformation Plan, the centerpiece of its coveted Vision 2030. Under the plan the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage (SCTH) is currently investing some $7 billion in tourism-focused initiatives around the country.

Thus the West waits, wondering if Saudi Arabia is signaling a renewed interest in seeing visitors from North America and Europe.

Business First

However, if the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is taking these initiatives a bit further and opening up for leisure or group tourism, the results are not immediately apparent. Few Western companies have been running scheduled departures into Saudi Arabia in recent years. The border seemed to close around five years ago when the KSA stopped issuing tourist visas.

“It’s been very difficult to do tourism-focused business in Saudi Arabia,” says Klaus Billep, president of Los Angeles-based Universal Travel Systems (UTS). “You can still go if you are a corporate traveler and can prove you have business there. However, even if this is so, if you try to go through a consulate to get your visa you will find yourself getting very frustrated and making repeated trips back to the consulate offices. They are very, very strict.”

UTS still handles business visa requests for clients who do not want to be burdened with this task and the travel company knows its way around visa concerns. But Billep notes he has not taken a leisure travel group there for several years.

One US-based tour company still does work with Saudi Arabia, providing one or two pricey tours annually through a long and hard-won relationship. Mountain Travel Sobek, known mostly to adventure travelers for running, hiking and rafting trips in far-flung corners of the world, takes one or two groups a year to the Kingdom, and is the only US-based company able to do so.  

Those trips involve small collections of ten or so participants four-wheeling into the mountains and Empty Quarter to visit treasures protected over the many centuries by dry air and a dearth of visitors. One amazing take-in is a UNESCO Cultural Heritage Site at Madain Saleh. Here some 140 monumental tombs as intricate and magnificent as the Treasury at Petra in Jordan are spread out over 10 miles. The most imposing of the tombs is Qasr Al Farid; carved from a single sandstone monolith, it was originally discovered in 1876 by British explorer Charles Doughty.

For business travelers from the US who may already be headed to Saudi Arabia for meetings or company matters, the Kingdom is wide open for visiting and touring. As a guest within these borders, the corporate traveler should set out to take in the top wonders of the country knowing it could be difficult to come this way again. Arrangements can usually be made through the concierge desk at international hotels.

Jeddah & Riyadh

Saudi Arabia has a large and fast-growing population, which is forecast to reach 37.6 million by 2025. Tourism efforts are more focused on getting Saudis on the road locally than bringing in curious Westerners. While 18 million foreign visitors came last year, nearly all came on pilgrimage to Mecca, rather than to experience the country’s other sights.

The primary cities of commerce and government in Saudi Arabia also have their notable high points. These are the capital city of Riyadh and commercial hub Jeddah.

Riyadh has proclaimed its intention to attract 88 million tourists to this city by 2020. However, some 85 percent of them would be local or from the neighboring Gulf countries.

Riyadh is increasingly investing in becoming a regional hub for business and logistics. Jeddah, renowned for its influx of pilgrims, is positioning the city as a key cultural center.

Local construction overview reports show Saudi Arabia will see a record 68 new hotels open by the end of 2017, adding 29,033 hotel rooms to the current 175,000 across its major cities.

Brands include Rocco Forte, TIME, Nobu, Swiss-Belhotel and the highly anticipated Abraj Kudai Towers, which will become the world’s biggest hotel when it opens its 10,000 rooms in Mecca in the fourth quarter. Recent openings include properties by Movenpick and Hilton.

Other pipeline projects that could drive tourism include a Six Flags-branded theme park in Riyadh. That city is also looking at the opening of two new major shopping malls: Mall of Saudi, with 3.2 million square feet of retail and entertainment space, a large snow park and hotels; and The Avenues Riyadh, a $1.9 billion shopping complex. Meanwhile, Jeddah is busy planning Jeddah Tower, which will become the world’s tallest building when completed in 2018, at 3,307 feet.

Finally, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently announced the building of Al-Qidiya, a new entertainment mega-city just outside of Riyadh. The project, to start next year with completion slated for 2022, will actually be nine cities or sections focused on entertainment and educational experiences, perhaps a Disneyland of sorts, if that park ran from Los Angeles to San Diego.

Touching Down in the Kingdom

Getting to Saudi Arabia usually means a ride on Saudia, the Kingdom’s royal airline. The carrier boasts regular and frequent non-stop schedules from New York, Washington/Dulles, Los Angeles and Toronto aboard some of the youngest fleets in the business. The flights have first class cabins made up of a dozen fully private suites, a new business class in diamond configuration with fully lie-flat seats and amenities, and an economy class that has won awards for its generous passenger space designs.

The flights take 15 hours, give or take, and landing is about to get a lot easier with new airport construction in Jeddah and Riyadh. King Khaled International Airport, about 22 miles north of Riyadh, will have five terminals (it currently has four and is building a fifth), a very large mosque, one of the world’s tallest control towers and a new Royal terminal for royalty, heads of state and VIPs.

King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah is nearing the completion of a new airport that will be a far cry from what currently ranks first place on a CNN survey of the world’s worst airports. The project allows the city to receive 80 million passengers a year, up from 13 million, and will have a dedicated Hajj Terminal set up specifically for handling pilgrims, including access to direct rail service to Mecca and Medina.

The airport facility is expected to be cutting edge in design and offerings – able to handle the thousands of transit or “sixth freedom” passengers that come through the airport each year with a variety of comfort amenities, shopping and entertainment.

On Saudia flights from the US, business travelers can expect to have plenty of company. Except for Saudi students (there are some 80,000 or more in the US) heading home for vacation, the primary passenger will be other corporate travelers.  

By Lark Gould