"I have lived a nomadic lifestyle for the majority of my career. It's an addiction and one that I find hard to let go of because I have a deep curiosity and a desire to seek adventure as I explore the world. As I reflect on these past years, I am incredibly grateful for my fearless spirit." Hilary McCormack is an Irish expat living in Saudi Arabia
Over the years, most of my travels have me ricocheting up and down the Arab Gulf states. There was only one country during those years that I had fleetingly visited. Then, in 2017, I secured the last missing stamp in my passport from this region: Saudi Arabia.
Little did I realize when I gingerly arrived in the capital, Riyadh, that I would quickly discover that Saudi Arabia is leading the way into the future with its forward-thinking 2030 vision; the country has thrown open its doors and is making incredible strides in innovation, technology, and sustainability in all fields, but it is in the area of tourism that visitors will get to share in most.
For Saudi nationals and expatriate workers alike, these history-making moments are exciting to witness and a privilege for all of us to be a part of.
Saudi Arabia is a vast country with different micro-climates, mountains, lakes, dramatic desert-scapes, and miles and miles of un-spoilt pristine coastline.
The country has identified some key locations of outstanding natural beauty and is busy developing these places into unique and cultured tourism and residential hubs.
While the people of Saudi Arabia are already acknowledged as hospitality experts, new travellers will get to experience their warm and welcoming nature many times over while traveling around the country, be it along the Red Sea coast, in the mountains of Asir and Jazan or when visiting the bright lights of Jeddah and Riyadh.
Small acts of kindness such as the welcome offering of a cup of hot Saudi coffee known as Ghawa, ready roadside assistance in a moment of need, or the recommendation of hidden local gems to explore all await the curiosity visitor to these shores.
This ritual of sitting under a shaded palm tree while sharing in some hot sweet karak and sampling some of the finest homegrown dates of the region is part of its cultural heritage and the fabric of life.
Engaging conversations in the shade of date-laden palm trees has led to the sharing of local secrets and the revealing of breathtaking nearby locations by enthusiastic locals—spots you most likely would not find on your own.
A trip to the nine-hundred-year-old village of Rijal Almaa, in the Asir Region, in the southwest of the country, will leave you wondering how Saudi managed to keep this place a secret from the rest of us for so long.
Similarly, driving west from Riyadh into the Al Bahah province for a long weekend hiking up the majestic mountain range known as Jebal Ibrahim provides a deep sense of peace and awe with the surrounding vastness and natural beauty.
The Jebal (meaning mountain) Ibrahim range is approximately 2,604 m high and is a majestic granite elevation rising c.1,000 m above the surrounding rocky and hilly landscape. In the wetter months of the year (January to April), the range gives rise to several streams, providing an endless water flow for Wadi Turabah and its tributaries.
The local habitat includes bare granite domes and slabs, well-vegetated granite-circled farming terraces, and herbaceous wetlands that grow on relatively steep, gravelly, and boulder-decorated slopes. Vegetation includes Juniper trees, wadis with abundant indigenous fruit and grass fodder, low-lying shrubs, and acacia woodlands. As a result, Jabal Ibrahim is of high botanical interest to local naturalists.
Back in the bustling city of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia is known as the Garden City. The city, located in the central heartland of the Najd plateau, is the largest on the Arabian Peninsula. Sitting at around 600 meters (2,000 ft) above sea level, it attracts approximately 5 million tourists annually.
"Saudi Arabia’s tourism sector has revised its 2030 target to 150 million visitors, up from the initial 100 million", Ahmed Al-Khateeb the Minister of Tourism said in 2023.
As of 2022, Riyadh has a population of seven million, making it the most populous city in Saudi Arabia and the third most populous in the Middle East. Situated in the heart of the capital, visitors can now visit the enchanting new Arabian experience of Diriyah, the original home of the Saudi royal family dating from 1727 to 1818.
Remnants of mud brick ruins belonging to the old city of Diriyah lie on either side of the narrow green valley known as Wadi Hanifa and silhouette against the skyline, looking quite grand as you approach it.
The At-Turaif World Heritage Site consists almost entirely of traditional handmade mud-brick structures and is classified as Najdi architecture. It sits on the highest elevation in this area, overlooking the lush green date palms of Wadi Hanifa; the project includes the remains of many palaces and is a classic example of an early urban layout.
The charming Turaif district, the first Saudi capital in Diriyah, was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2010. The old city's layout can be easily studied in the Visitor's Centre with the help of a large-scale city model.
As part of the Kingdom's 2030 Vision, the Diriyah Gate Development Authority (DGDA) is transforming Diriyah into the world's largest cultural and heritage destination.
This SAR 63.2Bn cultural and lifestyle development, inspired by the timeless Najdi architecture of At-Turaif, revitalizes and celebrates the birthplace of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
When my friend Michelle Soliman was visiting from Abu Dhabi, she said, "As a first-time visitor to Saudi, I was very impressed during my visit to historical Diriyah. The staff were welcoming and accommodating, while the themed galleries were interwoven within the ancient architecture of the Salwa Palace.
I am looking forward to bringing my son, who is confined to a wheelchair, to visit as this is one of the few historical sites I consider to be fully disabled accessible. The journey through the palace grounds was integrated with ramps, lifts, and broad walkways with intentional design to facilitate equitable access to all visitors. This attention to detail, as well as the charming staff, offering directions and drinking water, places this attraction at the top of my list of places to re-visit with family and friends."
Diriyah has big plans to welcome everyone. It promises to be a premier lifestyle destination where visitors can choose to visit, work, shop, dine, or call this place home in the very near future. The project aims to showcase the many wonders of the Kingdom's rich heritage and culture, and for now, all these projects are free to enter for the visiting public.
And this is not the only project making such promises; Saudi Arabia has mega projects mushrooming up right across the nation, names that will become part of our everyday lexicon, such as Qiddiya (a sports and entertainment venue to rival Disney World), NEOM (described as "a living laboratory for entrepreneurship, a home for an international community of dreamers and doers"); the Red Sea Global (will rival Bora Bora and the Maldives), AlUla (a living and outdoor museum of preserved tombs, sandstone outcrops, historic dwellings, and monuments, both natural and man-made, that hold 200,000 years of largely unexplored human history) and Trojena (winter sports resort in the mountains of NEOM).
AlUla, described as a living museum, is located in northwest Saudi Arabia, about 1,100 km from Riyadh. It is very driveable from the capital, or you can fly to the local airport. AlUla is a place of exceptional natural beauty and cultural heritage. Once again, it is vast; the area covers 22,561km² and features an oasis valley, sandstone mountains, and ancient heritage sites from the Lihyan and Nabataean kingdoms.
AlUla is home to Hegra, Saudi Arabia's first UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is the most well-known and recognized site in the area. Hegra is a 52-hectare ancient city that served as the principal southern city of the Nabataean Kingdom. It consists of 111 well-preserved tombs, many of which have elaborate facades carved out of the sandstone outcrops that surround the walled urban settlement, which is now an archaeological site.
Recent research indicates that Hegra was the southernmost Roman Empire outpost after the Nabataeans were conquered in 106 CE. Apart from Hegra, AlUla is also the home of ancient Dadan, which served as the capital of the Dadan and Lihyan Kingdoms. It is regarded as one of the most developed cities of the Arabian Peninsula from the 1st millennium BCE. Jabal Ikmah, an outdoor library of rock art with hundreds of inscriptions and writings in various ancient languages, was acknowledged by the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in June 2022.
AlUla's Old Town is a labyrinth of over 900 mud-brick homes that date back to at least the 12th century. In 2022, it was recognized by the UNWTO as one of the World's Best Tourism Villages. The Hijaz Railway Station and Hegra are famous sites in the story and conquests of Lawrence of Arabia. AlUla is a place that boasts 7000 years of civilization and is home to sophisticated ancient kingdoms. Today, it is gaining acclaim for its social gatherings, cultural celebrations, and the way it weaves its magical story to combine its natural beauty with its ancient history, bringing it all to life in a modern and stylish way.
Alan Morrissey, a long-term expat resident, said, "I've been visiting AlUla for over 25 years, and it has always felt to be a special place. And every time I return, it just gets better and better. There have been some significant changes in recent years with a focus on new, quality tourist attractions sensitively and tastefully introduced. Whatever your interest, you'll find so much to do in AlUla.
There are multiple heritage sites to visit, not to mention story-laden layers of archaeology situated alongside stunning examples of ancient rock art. If you're into the outdoors, the AlUla area offers stunning scenery with walks, hikes, and nature in which to immerse yourself. I recommend visiting the fabulous Diamumah sustainable oasis farmland, a new personal favorite. It offers new thrills with ziplines, escorted rock climbs, abseiling, and hot air balloon rides exist.
Finally, after all that activity, the atmospheric AlUla Old Town and adjacent arty Al Jadidah District are perfect settings to relax and enjoy fresh local food, dishes, and entertainment. AlUla has a packed program of regular and varied festivals – offering plenty more reasons to keep me going back again and again"!
Back in Riyadh, I recently went to see the NEOM exhibition called 'The Line', it tells the story of a new futuristic urban area emerging in Tabuk Province, which is located along the Red Sea coast.
This innovative development is positioned strategically east of Egypt, south of Jordan, and adjacent to the shores of the Gulf of Aqaba. It is placed squarely in a prime location for future growth and progress.
NEOM is a massive project, spanning an area of 26,500 square kilometers (10,200 square miles), basically the same size as Belgium.
The project is divided into several unique projects, including OXAGON, a floating industrial complex that will be the world's largest fully automated port and a new global integrated logistics hub. NEOM comes complete with luxury tourist resorts and its signature 170-kilometer linear city, "The Line," which will be powered by renewable energy sources.
Niall Gibbons, a fellow Irish expat and the new head of tourism in NEOM, recently said, "NEOM will provide visitors with an opportunity to explore its varied natural landscapes, with the ability to explore mountains, deserts, and the waters of the Red Sea in a single day. Underpinned by a commitment to regenerative tourism, each of NEOM's destinations and regions has been designed to minimize visitors' environmental impact and elevate the natural wonders it offers. Sindalah, our island destination, will welcome visitors during 2024 and set the tone for future openings."
The fascinating thread that interlinks all these projects is that they will shape future travel aspirations and hold strategic positions on people's bucket lists for future generations. It won't just be the random adventure seeker or the religious pilgrimage tourist coming to Saudi anymore; many more travellers will be coming to Saudi Arabia soon for luxury holidays, adventure tourism, nature-based tourism, and ecotourism because the future of travel is being designed in Saudi Arabia.