Saudi Arabia
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Vision 2030: Saudi Arabia opens up to new dimensions of travel

Are we experiencing a new form of mass tourism in Saudi Arabia? With its holy sites, the country attracts almost two million pilgrims a year.

Neal Town Stephenson’s science fiction novels reflect various experiments with new media such as virtual reality and the World Wide Web. In his work Snow Cash, the term “metaverse” describes an artificial 3D world that people explore with the help of VR glasses and other devices.

Imaginary travel becomes a new way of getting around. Mark Zuckerberg is investing billions in this future, dividing financial analysts who argue whether this represents a gigantic bad investment or a stroke of genius by the social media pioneer.

Photo: Mubin Ferdous

Saudi Arabia seeks new ways

Whether the investment is worth it or not, the possibility of virtual realities is increasingly defining the travel industry and people’s everyday habits. One example of this trend is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 project.

Since pilgrimage is a pillar of Islam, the superficial fear that real-life pursuits will one day be replaced by virtual expeditions is shown to be nonsense. People will always travel.

With the holy sites of Islam, Mecca and Medina, Saudi Arabia attracts almost two million pilgrims a year. This will remain the case. However, if we compare the famous 14th century travelogue of Ibn Battuta, which he wrote about his journey to the religious sites, with today’s reality, the full extent of the change becomes clear.

Today, pilgrims and travellers from all over the world use hitherto unknown technical aids on their way to and during their stay in Saudi Arabia.

Travelling in the metaverse

Already today, travellers can explore their hotels on virtual tours or visit the check-in desks in advance before they leave, for example in the Metaverse. The new online visas, which are quickly available and have replaced the lengthy procedure at the Saudi embassy, are standard. This will soon be joined by the planned introduction in Europe of digital ID cards that you keep in your smartphone.

Travelling will become borderless. Technologically conceivable are routes where one hardly uses one’s cash and is no longer checked but is observed solely by cameras that recognise the biological characteristics of the traveller’s identity. Meanwhile, new applications for smartphones regulate the growing flow of pilgrims to the sites in Mecca and Madinah.

Photo: Shaker Kashgari

Working on an image change

The fact is, Saudi Arabia is working on a fundamental image change and is opening to visitors from all over the world to an unprecedented extent. Last year, the country received 67 million guests who enter not only for the holy sites accessible only to Muslims.

The region is becoming a destination for tourists from all over the world, who visit hundreds of historically important sites. The itinerary includes the ruins of ancient civilisations, to Jeddah’s magical Al Balad and the beauty of Alula, one of the oldest cities in the Arabian Peninsula. Across the country, including on the beaches, hotel developments are springing up to cater to different travellers’ needs.

Photo: User Ateyah

Engine for diversification

Tourism is a key driver of the Kingdom’s diversified economy, with a target of contributing more than 10 per cent to GDP. Fuelled by significant investment in entertainment, tourism infrastructure and the exploitation of Saudi Arabia’s natural and diverse beauty, the industry is an engine for job creation and economic growth.

Millions of Muslims in Europe are just as much a target group for the new offerings. At the ITB Berlin in March, the Gulf state, the largest exhibitor at the international tourism trade show, provided information about its huge plans. Hazim Al Hazmi, representative of the Saudi Tourism Authority, announced high investments of about 550 billion in the new destinations at the press conference. The country’s future strategy is to become less dependent on oil by strengthening other sectors.

Photo: Saudi Press Agency | Licence: CC BY 4.0

Ambitious Crown Prince

Examples of the country’s rapid transformation are numerous. A few months ago, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, prime minister and chairman of the New Murabba Development Company (NMDC), unveiled a plan to develop the world’s largest modern downtown in Riyadh.

The New Murabba project will be built in a carbon-neutral manner, in line with the concept of sustainability, and will include generous green spaces as well as walking and cycling paths, in addition to the necessary infrastructure. Hotels, a museum, a technology and design university, a multi-purpose theatre and more than 80 entertainment and cultural venues are part of the plan. The project will accommodate hundreds of thousands of residents while attracting visitors from all over the world.

The boundary between reality and imagination is fluid, as shown by the landmark of the complex, the Mukaab. The design of the futuristic building includes various facilities and, with a height of 400 m, a width of 400 m and a length of 400 m, it will be one of the largest structures on earth. The cubic form of the Mukaab ensures a use of space that dissolves the boundaries between the virtual and real worlds.

Inspired by an innovative architectural style, it will be the world’s first destination to offer an experience created by digital technologies using the latest holograms. As a time traveller, the visitor walks in artificial spaces, explores Mars or wanders into the Earth’s historical past.

Mass tourism since the 19th century

Are we experiencing a new form of mass tourism in Saudi Arabia? It is interesting to recall the origin of the phenomenon. In the 19th century, the Englishman Thomas Cook founded the first company to offer organised travel on a large scale.

The travel pioneer was not only a convinced Baptist, but also a self-confessed teetotaller. His social intention was to provide the working class, plagued by alcohol problems, with a different experience and higher knowledge. The idea of international understanding was a core concern of the international travel movement for him.

Saudi Arabia opens the field of tension between revelation and technology, holy sites and holiday domiciles. Perhaps through the encounter of travellers in the region, under the impression of real, symbolic and imaginary experiences, a new form of dialogue will emerge. In this case, Vision 2030 would be a project of the century.

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