Saudi Arabia has been steering its efforts towards its tourism sector, and one city in the kingdom has just been named as the "Capital of Arab Tourism" for 2019.
During its 21st edition, the Arab Ministerial Council on Tourism (AMCT) named the Saudi city of Al-Ahsa as the tourism capital in the Arab world. This comes after the city ticked all items of the checklist prepared by the Arab Tourism Organization (ATO.)
The city's historical, cultural, and touristic status made the organization's decision quite easy, explained President of ATO Dr. Bandar bin Fahd Al Fuhaid, according to Al Arabiya.
The decision also aims to "promote the increase and development of tourism revenues for Al-Ahsa province in particular."
Al-Ahsa is a traditional oasis and historical area situated in eastern Saudi Arabia. It is known for its lush greenery and water springs. Its name is also used by the Al-Ahsa Governorate, which takes up the majority of the kingdom's eastern province.
The city has received attention on more than one occasion. In 2016, Al-Ahsa was named "most creative city in the world" by the United Nations.
In July 2018, UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage Site - becoming the 5th site in the kingdom to be given the status.
Saudi's tourism sector in a nutshell
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has been slowly opening its doors to international visitors. This is all part of Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030, which aims to push for greater cultural and entertainment opportunities in the kingdom.
A key goal under Vision 2030 is to increase the number of tourists in the kingdom and revenues generated from tourism to 18 percent in the next 14 years. Under Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia is expected to host up to 1.5 million tourists by 2020. Since the plan was initiated in 2016, the kingdom has opened its doors wide to a range of new cultural activities. Public concerts, international conferences, cinemas, and other entertainment options have come to the kingdom.
In 2017, some Saudi travel agencies - classified in category D - were given the authorization to begin issuing travel visas. That same year, the kingdom announced it will begin issuing tourist visas in the first quarter of 2018. Formerly, visas were only available to pilgrims, business people with a local sponsor, and family members of residents.
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia announced it will begin offering electronic visas for foreign visitors who wish to attend sporting events and concerts starting December.
The kingdom is also working on transforming its "Red Sea coast into a tourist paradise"
In 2017, Saudi Arabia unveiled its plans to transform its Red Sea coast into a luxury beach destination governed "by independent laws."
According to a document initially reported by Bloomberg, the development will be a "semi-autonomous" area within the kingdom, leading to speculation that the kingdom's traditional rules on dress and prohibition on alcohol will not be applied.
The document said the area will be ruled "by independent laws and a regulatory framework developed and managed by a private committee."
Foundations of the Red Sea development are scheduled for the third quarter of 2019. 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.