Esquire Saudi's columnist, Abdullah Al-Khorayef, has a nostalgia for 2030
Up until recently, when it comes to tourism, we Saudis have always considered ourselves tourists. During major holidays, we have been the ones travelling to other countries. However, seeing as ‘tourism’ is a pillar in Vision 2030, there has been a fundamental shift in mindset to think of Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination—for both Saudis and non-Saudis alike. And why not?
As I write this, the Riyadh Expo 2030 delegation is in Paris promoting the city as a candidate to host the World Expo. The campaign is compelling—Riyadh is becoming an international city, but one that remains vastly undiscovered and one of the few cities in the world that is truly looking at the future.
Originally, the idea of tourism came from the industrial revolution, where working hours were standardised in an industrialised world and workers were entitled to have days off, to do what they wanted at their own leisure.
If we apply the same theory to Saudi Arabia, when the modern State was formed—creating institutions, legislation, authorities and a governed society—the concept of government-mandated free time also appeared. Before that, the only free time we had was tied to traditions and religious holidays.
Back then a lot of what people did during their leisure depended on their location. In Riyadh—where the King and royal court were based—the aggressive summer heat would lead them to move to cooler climes, such as Taif, where even during the summer the area is cool, green and the mountains are rich with fruit. Naturally, where the King went so did his government officials and their families. Because of this, many Saudis followed suit, creating the first tourist destination in Saudi Arabia.
Thanks to a stable State and growing economy, the population began to move about more, both nationally and internationally. Saudi Airlines was founded and started with flights to Cairo, then Beirut and other cities. Quickly travel expanded to Europe, with London becoming a favourite destination for Saudis, likely influenced by growing trade ties with the UK and government educational scholarships.
Off the back of increasing oil prices in the 1970s and ’80s, Saudis became wealthier and started to travel further, investing in properties abroad. I would argue the 1990s was the first ‘golden age of Saudi travel’, with regular destinations becoming firm summer favourites including Marbella’s Puerto Banús, Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, the Champs-Elysée in Paris, and Cairo’s Semiramis Hotel. Many families also regularly attended Disney World in Florida and the Geneva Carnival. Saudis were everywhere and having established these grand tours, there really was no going back.
Today, Saudi Arabia finds itself as one of the fastest-growing tourist destinations in the world. People are flocking to Taif, again. But rather than just the royal court, tens of thousands of tourists from within Saudi, the Gulf and the rest of the world are also visiting Abha, Alsoodah, AlUla, and Jeddah. There are film festivals, music festivals, and arts and culture exhibitions while cutting-edge hotel developments rise up around them.
For all the tourism that Vision 2030 promotes, it’s fascinating that when it comes to travelling, more and more Saudis are now actually choosing to rediscover the landscapes, culture, heritage and diversity that lie much closer to home.