Ask someone who knows me what I have in common with Lionel Messi, and they will likely laugh and say: “Well, it is not that you are both football superstars.” Yes, they would be correct, but one thing we do have in common is Saudi tourism.
The recent announcement that Messi is Saudi Arabia’s new ambassador for tourism could not have come at a better time. The country is moving at a dynamic, accelerated pace of transformation, launching exciting entertainment programs, bringing in world-class events, and providing citizens, residents, and tourists with unique, diverse experiences to create long-lasting memories.
It has never been easier to visit and explore the Kingdom, and there has never been a better time to do so. COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted, and the country has returned to a pre-pandemic level of openness. Face masks are no longer required indoors and proof-of-vaccination requirements to enter most places are no longer necessary.
One of the most exciting places to visit in Saudi Arabia right now is Jeddah, and I have had the opportunity to travel there a couple of times in recent months to experience its back-to-back events, festivals and sporting attractions.
In early May, I enjoyed a couple of days at Jeddah Season, now in its second edition and already hugely successful with more than 4 million visitors since its launch in May. Amid an impressive fireworks display and Cirque du Soleil performance, Jeddah Season is a unique experience, with more than 2,800 events for visitors of all ages and segments.
The multiculturalism seen in Jeddah today — its food, art and architecture — is a testament to the city’s history of welcoming people to its shores.
During my time in Jeddah, I was only able to visit four of the nine distinct zones in the city and experience only a handful of the activities on offer. My first day was spent exploring the City Walk zone, one of the largest of the zones, filled with diverse entertainment experiences, including music, theater and adventure activities.
It was a wonderfully relaxing day, mixing with artists and fashionistas, and intermittently dropping into one of the many multicultural food halls. In the evening, I headed across to the Jeddah Pier zone, which, with more than 40 thrilling rides, is the Red Sea’s largest seaside amusement park. I must confess that the rollercoaster in the Adrenaland certainly got my heart pumping harder than I expected.
I spent much of the next day at the Jeddah Jungle zone, home to over 1,000 wild animals and rare birds. I opted to take a Safari Game Drive, a one-of-a-kind tour in a private jeep from which I saw seven different kinds of wild cats, including tigers, cheetahs, and the beautiful and majestic white lions.
Later in the evening, I returned to the coastline for a long walk along the Jeddah Arts Promenade. I was fully immersed in the buzz of activity, from street performers, art installations and the nightly fireworks display. The energy on the streets is a feeling that will stay with me, a true hive of people coming together, unifying and enjoying the simple pleasures of what Jeddah Season had to offer.
One of the things that struck me most about Jeddah Season, other than the sheer amount of fun I was having, was the number of non-Saudis also enjoying the activities on offer.
This was most evident in the historical Al-Balad zone, a UNESCO World Heritage site hosting a plethora of art and cultural events.
It struck me that Jeddah City is not only very much ready to welcome visitors, as it has been doing for centuries, but also is being globally recognized as a cosmopolitan hub of the country.
The multiculturalism seen in Jeddah today — its food, art and architecture — is a testament to the city’s history of welcoming people to its shores. Jeddah, an ancient city with a rich cultural heritage, is now a major business center, a gateway for millions of pilgrims and a thriving tourism destination.
Last year saw a record-breaking number of domestic visits in Saudi Arabia despite the pandemic restrictions in the early months. In fact, in 2021, tourism in the Kingdom staged a 72 percent recovery to pre-pandemic levels — a higher rate than anywhere else in the region and greater than the international average of 67 percent — to reach an overall international and domestic record of 62 million visits.
The vision is to increase that number with a goal of more than 70 million visits in 2022, and events such as Jeddah Season and the F1 Grand Prix, which took place for the second time in Jeddah in March 2022, give the Kingdom a fantastic opportunity to highlight what it has to offer for both the domestic and international traveler.
The diversification of the Saudi economy under Vision 2030, and the drive to develop the tourism sector and enhance the quality of life for both citizens and residents, has meant that Saudi Arabia is on track in its mission to build the world’s biggest new tourism destination.
• Abdullah Al-Dakhil is an international communication manager at the Saudi Tourism Authority. He completed his postgraduate studies in London.