Saudi Arabia wants to become the next Dubai. An entire country is shifting gears to resemble a rather lively city in the UAE. The kingdom has been slowly inviting tourists to enjoy various activities, summer festivals, sporting events, and concerts — specifically in the city of Jeddah. But Riyadh, Al-Ula, and other areas are getting more attention as of late.
Speculations have it that Saudi Arabia will most likely share the details of a new tourist visa scheme sometime this month; it seems a number of "influencers" have been (subtly?) promoting Saudi Arabia for quite some time now. If you're a follower of these social media personalities, then you probably noticed some kind of trend. But, if you're a hermit like me, then they probably passed you by like a ghost.
These internet-popular individuals have been touring - and promoting - Saudi Arabia as part of Gateway KSA, a program that's been arranging tours the past two years in an effort to build "cross-cultural relationships through travel and education."
One such personality is Los Angeles-based travel blogger Aggie Lal who toured the kingdom over 10 days back in March — a trip organized by Gateway KSA.
"What we present to these young people is that there's another side to the story about Saudi Arabia than what they simply read in the press," Prince Turki Al-Faisal, a former intelligence chief for Saudi Arabia, said about the guests of the program, according to Bloomberg.
"We have much to do in the kingdom to affect the opinion of others."
In several posts, Lal documented her experience, showing the "other side" of Saudi Arabia that Turki Al-Faisal talked about. In her first post on Instagram, the 31-year-old travel enthusiast explained that it took her a while to decide whether to accept the invitation of Gateway KSA or not.
In the posts that followed, Lal raised several different issues including the abaya and the limited rights of women in the kingdom. In one caption, the blogger highlighted this very fact. She then raised a question for her followers.
"If you wanted to help women in Saudi have better human rights would you boycott visiting the country OR would you encourage all women around the world to travel there to connect, get to meet and make friends with and listen to the needs of Saudi women so we can help each other out?" she wrote.
She even toured different sites such as Madain Saleh, which is currently closed to the public as the kingdom "develops the area to allow for future tourism."
In one video, the blogger can be seen standing in the midst of a wave of dust caused by a buggy nearby. She thanked her "Saudi friends" aka "the buggy and camel drivers" who spent hours to make the video a reality "without any pay."
Another visitor to the country was Lesley Murphy, a travel journalist and TV personality, who not only documented her experience on social media but also wrote an entire blog post on the journey.
Murphy, a former contestant on the reality TV show The Bachelor, rose to fame following her appearance on the show. She then created a travel blog titled "The Road Les Traveled" and later posted about her Saudi trip on there.
"As a country that's been closed for so many years to foreign visitors, there's a lot of infrastructure that needs to be developed – whether that's structural, technical or social," she wrote.
Murphy was also invited to tour the kingdom as part of Gateway KSA, and she, just like Lal, was hesitant to accept the invitation.
"It's not a country that's been at the top of my bucket list, but I'm innately curious and have an infinite longing to see faraway lands," she added.
"I always advocate for learning through experience rather than adhering to the status quo. Breaking stereotypes is imperative today as division separates us more than ever. So, I went."
From the Masmak Fortress in Riyadh to the rocky desert "The Edge of The World" outside of the city, Murphy explored the ins and outs of the kingdom. She also explored the cities of Jeddah and Al-Ula, which is known for its beautiful landscapes and scenery.
Other influencers who were invited to the kingdom include LA-based Morgan Oliver-Allen, Sydney-based photographer Gab Scanu, Greek content creator Ioannis Koulousis, Jordanian travel filmmaker Joe Hattab, among several others.
According to Gateway KSA, their influencers do more than just ride camels and explore deserts.
"They (for the most part) engage with locals. Chat to them about daily life, culture, events, the future, food, pop culture... they have discussions on political issues, social practices and laws," Gateway KSA wrote in one caption on Instagram.
According to Bloomberg, Gateway KSA does not "have a direct relationship with the government." The publication pointed out that some sponsors include state-controlled companies such as Saudi Telecom, Saudi Basic Industries, and Saudi Arabian Airlines.
"It [Gateway KSA] is not a propaganda exercise," Prince Turki said, explaining that influencers are free to post and say whatever they want.
"It's simply a human engagement exercise," he added.
A key goal under Vision 2030 is to increase the number of tourists who visit Saudi Arabia and revenues generated from the sector to 18 percent in the next 14 years. Under the same scheme, Saudi Arabia is expected to host up to 1.5 million tourists by 2020. It's true that much of that number comes from religious tourism, but that doesn't mean effort hasn't been put into the growth of the leisure tourism sector.
Though this hasn't been officially announced by government officials, but last month, Arab News reported that industry sources confirmed there would be an event titled "Saudi Arabia opens to tourism" later this month. It aims to showcase the country's tourist attractions. The government has said its plans "hadn't been finalized yet," according to Bloomberg. Tourist visas have been in the making for quite some time and underwent a trial period between 2008 and 2010.
In 2017, some Saudi travel agencies - classified in category D - were given the authorization to begin issuing travel visas. Formerly, visas were only available to pilgrims, business people with a local sponsor, and family members of residents.
On top of making travel to the country more accessible, Saudi Arabia has been putting time and resources into transforming the kingdom into a tourism hotspot. The kingdom is currently working on developing its Red Sea coast into a luxury beach destination governed by "independent laws." The project aims at transforming Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastline into a global hub for tourists, with luxury hotels and pristine beaches. Construction work on the project began earlier this year. The first phase is expected to be completed by the end of 2022 including the development of hotels and luxury residential units, as well as all logistical infrastructure including air, land, and sea transport hubs.