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Why 2023 May Finally Be The Year To Visit Saudi Arabia

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Saudi Arabia is a rapidly changing nation with its sights set on tourism growth and overhauling its brand image as a destination. After dropping the onerous advance visa requirement for many international tourists, the Arab nation is seeing a positive growth rate for visitors expected to continue in 2023.

So much so that it has plans to build a “mega airport” in Riyadh with six runways to become a global logistics and transportation hub in line with others in the region like Doha and Dubai.

The “Vision 2030” plan

It is all part of the country’s Vision 2030 plan, which is geared around economic and social reform in line with opening up the nation to international travel. While religious tourism has always been important, there is a focus on growing a year-round interest in the destination.

Also coming in 2023 is the Red Sea Global, which will welcome its first tourism visitors to a sprawling waterfront development destination with various resorts and residents.

It’s all in the numbers

At the recent World Travel & Tourism Council’s (WTTC) 22nd Global Summit in Riyadh, where speakers included CNN’s Richard Quest, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Lady Theresa May and Arnold Donald, vice chair of the board for Carnival Corporation, the outlook was upbeat. The latest figures indicate that Saudi Arabia will be the fastest-growing destination in the region with 11% growth annually over the next decade.

Data from WTTC’s Economic Impact Report confirms that level of growth is more than six times the 1.8% growth rate of the country’s overall economy. By 2032, tourism will contribute to 17.1% of the total economy there. WTTC President and CEO Julia Simpson notes that travel and tourism will become a driving force of the Saudi Arabian economy eventually surpassing the goals set out for Vision 2030.

One hurdle for the destination is overcoming preconceived notions of social issues. Travelers will also want to respect local laws and customs when traveling, which includes the nation being a dry country with no alcohol served either within the borders or on its national airline, Saudia. These include dressing conservatively without exposing shoulders and knees. Travelers should also avoid wearing clothes with profanity or revealing styles.

“I was surprised at how comfortable I was as a woman, not covering my head,” says Johanna Jainchill, news editor for Travel Weekly. “Even many Saudi women don’t cover their heads now, although the majority do.

Jainchill, who attended the WTTC Global Summit, points out that repositioning a country not accustomed to international tourists can be challenging though.

“Given how recently the Kingdom opened to tourism it makes sense that there are some shortcomings in service,” she added. “Visitors coming now will have to have patience and be prepared to wait or for sites to be unexpectedly closed. I imagine that many of those problems will be solved with the training of 100,000 people for the tourism sector.”

The hospitality industry takes notice

Noticing this tourism growth is the hospitality industry that is flooding the market with a growing number of hotels and resorts in the pipeline. Among the many luxury and well-known brands are new hotels from Miraval, Raffles Hotels & Resorts, Rosewood and SLS Hotels & Residences among others.

These and other new properties show confidence and excitement in a newly opened market with tremendous potential. This could mean big business in 2023 and beyond for the nation and travelers looking to explore something new. Here are several of the hospitality projects currently in the works.

Banyan Tree AlUla opened this year

Banyan Tree AlUla opened this fall in Saudi Arabia marking the first for the brand in the nation. The luxury tented resort is in the Ashar Valley; each tent has its own plunge pool and fire pit. In addition to amazing dining experiences, recreational activities include everything from rock climbing to zip lining. It is part of the ambitious and buzzworthy AlUla tourist destination that is already drawing crowds.

World of Hyatt is on the way

“Flexible working policies across the region and the introduction of the 4.5 day working week in the U.A.E. also has created an environment in which residents can travel more frequently and for longer periods of time,” says Javier Águila, Hyatt group president for Europe and Middle East. “This has created a demand for ‘long-stay’ packages, where guests can work remotely, and also ‘long-weekend break’ packages, extending from Friday thru Sunday.”

This brings the brand to Saudi Arabia in a big way, which already has six properties, but has plans to add more across a variety of price points. “The Middle East is and will continue to be a key focus for Hyatt in our global growth strategy,” adds Águila.

Four Seasons grows in Saudi Arabia

Four Seasons Hotel and Private Residences Jeddah at the Corniche resort will open in 2024 in the Corniche district overlooking the Red Sea. It is part of a larger brand growth strategy in the country, says Simon Casson, president, hotel operations, Europe, the Middle East and Africa, for Four Seasons.

“The Middle East, and in particular Saudi Arabia, is an important growth market for us and is a key destination for luxury international and regional travelers,” adds Casson. “There is strong, consistent demand for the established urban hubs like Riyadh, and the significant holy destinations such as Makkah and Madinah, where millions of visitors carry out the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages each year.”

Four Seasons already has a hotel in Riyadh, the Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh at Kingdom Centre, and plans to expand with two more properties including this Jeddah resort and another at Diriyah Gate. The latter is part of a 300 year-old heritage site on the outskirts of Riyadh. The Diriyah development is part of a growing cultural and lifestyle destination incorporating Saudi Arabian heritage. It will be divided into 13 districts including areas focused on dining, hospitality, museums, office space and residential areas.

Marriott adds trio of luxury resorts on the Red Sea

Many more of Marriott’s brands will be present in Saudi Arabia as part of this hospitality growth. Nujuma, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve, The Red Sea will open next year although it will not participate in the Marriott Bonvoy loyalty program. The luxury resort is part of Red Sea’s Blue Hole individual islands and will feature overwater and beach villas with between one and four bedrooms. Unique to the resort is an eco-friendly focus with a dedicated conservation center.

For the first time, this Marriott luxury brand will open a hotel on the Red Sea in 2023. As part of The Red Sea Project, The St. Regis Red Sea Resort will have 90 villas on a private island or suspended over the water.

The Red Sea EDITION will also be part of The Red Sea Project, which stretches across an archipelago of 90 untouched islands as well as cultural sites, mountains and even volcanoes. This will be the first hotel in the country for the luxury brand, which involves a design partnership with Ian Schrager, and opens next summer. It is part of a global expansion with the portfolio expected to double in size to 30 properties by 2027.

25hours Hotels and Morgans Originals

Coming to the new mountain destination known as NEOM, these two hotels will boast futuristic design. One has architecture inspired by science fiction movies as well as the 25 hours brand’s alpine heritage. The other will have a ski slope on the building’s roof, rooftop pool overlooking TROJENA’s mountains, a spa and bathhouse.

25hours is part of the Accor brand, which has been operating in the country since 2001. In fact, it was the first international operator to enter the market. Accor executives credit both internal travel demand as well as advertising from the global reach of events like the Riyadh Season and the Winter of Tantoura Festival in AlUla for fueling hospitality growth.

At the moment, Accor currently operates 41 hotels (16,650 rooms) across 13 different brands with plans to add eight more hotel brands in the next five years, including well-known names like SLS and Orient Express.

IHG opens first Vignette Collection in the region

“Coupled with the diverse natural assets of the nation and the government driven developments, such as NEOM and the Red Sea Development Project, the current period is one that marks historic growth and transformation in Saudi Arabia’s tourism sector,” says Haitham Mattar, managing director, IMEA, IHG Hotels & Resorts.

IHG opened its first Vignette Collection property in the Middle East in Saudi Arabia. The hospitality company is already a market leader with 37 currently operating properties and more than 30 hotels in the pipeline covering both mainstream and luxury or lifestyle brands. These include familiar names like Holiday Inn, Crowne Plaza, InterContinental and voco.

Armani to open third global hotel in Diriyah Gate

Following hotels in Milan and Dubai, Giorgio Armani’s hotel brand is coming to Saudi Arabia next. It will also be part of the Diriyah Gate development although no opening date has been set. Only 15 minutes from Riyadh, the property demonstrates confidence from the high-end Armani brand in the destination and its growth prospects for a consumer market willing to spend substantially on a hotel stay. It will bring together the distinctive architecture and landscape of the destination. In addition to guest rooms, each of the suites will have their own pool and spa area. Eighteen Armani-designed luxury residences will be adjacent to the resort.

Jumeirah Jabal Omar, Makkah

The Jumeirah brand will open one of its biggest hotels in Makkah, which is scheduled to open in 2023. The property is expected to place a big focus on those traveling for religious pilgrimage, especially those looking for luxurious experiences during their visit. Jabal Omar Jumeirah will have accommodations spread across four buildings with nearly 100 stores as part of the larger project. The hotel will have more than 1,000 accommodations including rooms, suites, apartments and residences, many with views of the Grand Mosque.

Shangri-La Jeddah

Opened in February 2022, this luxury resort is located on the city’s waterfront. Not far from area shopping and tourist hot spots, Shangri-La Jeddah is also near the Jeddah Corniche Circuit, the fastest street circuit in Formula 1 and home to the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix. This is the first Shangri-La in the country and demonstrates a commitment to high-end travelers traveling to the region and willing to spend more on a stay. The resort also has a residential tower, spa facilities, kids’ club and three food and beverage options.

AMAALA’s Triple Bay Yacht Club

No fewer than eight resorts will open under the first phase of the AMAALA’s Triple Bay Yacht Club. The complex will launch in 2024 as part of the Triple Bay Marina of the Prince Mohammed bin Salman Nature Reserve.

The outlook for Saudi Arabia is very promising, and Jainchill’s conclusion sums it up well: “what the Kingdom seems to have, and is the hardest asset to teach, is the unfailingly friendly, warm and helpful people. Ask someone where a bathroom is, and they are likely to walk you to it.”

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