quotes Fancy a spur of the moment holiday? Saudi Arabia is now a top destination that will take your breath away

22 July 2023
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Updated 22 July 2023

Fancy a spur of the moment holiday? Saudi Arabia is now a top destination that will take your breath away

A couple of nights ago my phone started ringing just as I was falling asleep. It was my friend Mohammed calling from London.

“Abdullah, I’m coming! I’m coming!” he said with excitement.

“Where?” I asked, still half asleep.

“To Saudi!”

“Oh, that’s great. Let me call you back next week to discuss. I’m sleeping.”

“Ok … Abdullah?”


“I arrive tomorrow afternoon.”

And he did.

It turns out that Mohammed had just been on the phone to a mutual friend of ours, Imran, who was on pilgrimage in Makkah. Imran had told Mohammed that he and I were planning a short trip to Asir province together after he had finished his pilgrimage, to enjoy the Saudi summer and take advantage of its unique experiences. He made a throwaway comment that Mohammed should rethink his summer plans and join us, and moments later on a whim, Mohammed had purchased a plane ticket to Riyadh.

“Rethink Summer — Visit Saudi” is what this summer in Saudi Arabia is all about, encouraging people to visit the Kingdom and experience it as a diverse and unique tourism destination, and that is exactly what Mohammed did.

Now anyone who knows me knows that I love Asir and I take every opportunity I can to show it to my friends and visitors, so for me this was great news.

The reason that Mohammed was able to do this was because on June 12, the Kingdom announced an extension to the tourism e-visa program, which allows visitors from six categories (UK, US and Schengen visa holders, or permanent residents of the UK, the US and any EU country) to obtain an instant e-visa online rather than on arrival at a Saudi international airport or via a consulate. Previously the tourism e-visa was only available to the 49 e-visa countries, but after the extension, Mohammed, who is a Pakistani with UK residency, was able to easily apply online for an instant tourism e-visa from the comfort on his own home.

This extension to the tourism e-visa program is a fantastic step forward, making it easier than ever before for more travelers to visit the Kingdom and get an authentic experience of its hospitable cultural landscape.

The e-visa program is one of several initiatives launched by Saudi Arabia over the past year to improve visitor experience. Another was the Nusuk platform, launched by the Saudi Tourism Authority in 2022 in collaboration with the Pilgrimage Experience Program, which provides pilgrims and visitors with an easy-to-use integrated digital platform for planning their journeys to Makkah, Madinah and beyond.

Imran used the Nusuk platform to plan and book his pilgrimage and he told us, on our flight from Jeddah to Abha in Asir province, that the whole streamlined process of visas, flights and hotel reservations had worked like clockwork. He too had obtained a visit e-visa straight through the Nusuk platform and used service provider partners on the platform to book flights, hotels and transportation. There are now over 200 such partners registered on the platform. He also mentioned that the educational guides on performing Hajj and Umrah on the platform were useful, as well as information on the historical and cultural sites in Makkah and other events and activities that had enriched his visit.

Landing at Abha Regional Airport, we hired a car and set off in the direction of Rijal Alma, a historical village a couple of hours away from Abha. The drive is reason enough to travel there, but once visitors arrive, they are blown away by its stone castles and the unique architectural design of its colorful buildings, many of which are centuries old. This was certainly not my first time visiting Rijal Alma but I love it, and it is a must-see for anyone traveling to Asir province for the first time.

Our visit coincided with the start of the second Asir Season, which began on June 30 and will run until Sept. 1. It is an eight-week festival of music, family activities, food and cultural experiences. This is coupled with the fact that Asir province is arguably the coolest spot in the whole region, with light breezes and even occasional morning fog dropping the temperature to 15 C, which is colder than London in July. Asir is a fantastic place to visit during the summer months.

Back in Abha the next day, we explored the streets and stumbled upon castles, palaces and ancient houses. I was struck by how colorful many of the streets were and learnt that the people of Abha are traditionally an artistic community. Going back hundreds of years, the women — who were responsible for painting the walls of their homes — used to decorate the buildings with geometric artwork and bright colors extracted from trees. This traditional abstract art is known as Al-Qatt Al-Asiri and its importance was recognized in 2017 when UNESCO listed it as an Intangible Cultural Heritage.

There was a festive atmosphere in much of the city, with street performers playing traditional music, local artists displaying their works and local vendors selling traditional mouth-watering foods. But we did not indulge too much because Mohammed had booked a reservation for dinner at an incredible pop-up restaurant that provides an elevated, panoramic view of the city.

During dinner, while we reminisced about our student days in London back in 2011, it occurred to me just how far the Kingdom has come in the last few years. Since opening to tourists in 2019, Saudi Arabia has become one of the fastest-growing tourism markets in the world. Tremendous efforts have been made across the sector to provide visitors with unique and unmatched travel experiences.

Saudi Arabia welcomed more than 16 million visitors from outside the Kingdom in 2022 and now ranks 13th globally for international tourist arrivals, which is up from 25th place in 2019. With more than 94 million visits in total recorded in 2022, the Kingdom is well on its way to achieving its Vision 2030 target of 100 million annual visits by the end of the decade.

— Abdullah Al-Dakhil is a PR and corporate communications director at the Saudi Tourism Authority. He completed his postgraduate studies in London. His interests are traveling, tourism, culture and international economy. Twitter: @AbdullahADakhil