It wasn’t long ago that travel to Saudi Arabia was pretty much unheard of unless you were visiting on business or heading to the holy city of Makkah for the Hajj pilgrimage. The country’s extraordinary landscapes—including the Nabataean ruins of AlUla, the 1,100-mile Red Sea coast, the date palms of the Al Ahsa oasis, and the terraced mountain farms in the south—were largely unexplored by international travelers. But since the launch of e-visas in 2019, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been on a tourism fast track, aiming to welcome more than 100 million visitors a year by 2030. As part of this goal, the nation is embarking on ambitious destination-building programs, while also making its ancient heritage sites more accessible.
From historic cities and protected marine parks to futuristic urban developments springing out of the desert, here are five of the emerging destinations to know.
NEOM is a project so futuristic that it has left many people scratching their heads and wondering if it’s actually real. (To prove the naysayers wrong, NEOM recently released a video showing that “NEOM is real”, featuring all the tangible developments to date.) It aims to stretch the realm of possibility, and that seems to be the point. There are the mind-boggling numbers associated with the Line, a new completely car-free city that will be 105 miles long, 1,640 feet high, and only 650 feet wide. The Line will have a mirrored facade, run on 100 percent renewable energy, be home to 9 million people, and have a high-speed train traveling from end-to-end in just 20 minutes.
Then there’s Trojena, the mountainous part of the NEOM project, and the Arabian Peninsula’s first winter sports destination. Opening in 2026, it will incorporate a 7,874-feet-high ski village with 18 miles of runs that will host the 2029 Asian Winter Games. Also in the works are facilities for water sports, wellness, hiking, and mountain biking. The first hotels—25hours and Morgans—are already confirmed.
But the first phase of NEOM to welcome visitors in early 2024 will be Sindalah. Centered around a luxury island and positioned as a year-round yachting hub, Sindalah aims to attract a sailing community and yacht owners from the Mediterranean and beyond who can glide through the Suez Canal and down into the Red Sea. An 86-berth marina and 75 offshore buoys will be there to welcome them, along with luxury hotels, restaurants, and retail, plus facilities for spa, wellness, golf, and sports.
The Red Sea
Spanning 10,800 square miles, Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea destination sits on the edge of the world’s fourth largest barrier coral reef and is made up of 90 islands and desert landscapes. With dormant volcanoes, mountain canyons, and historical cultural sites inland plus dive sites filled with marine life offshore, there’s much for adventurous travelers to experience. They won’t have to rough it, though. The destination will be home to 16 luxury resorts. The first three—Six Senses Southern Dunes, the St. Regis Red Sea Resort, and Nujuma, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve—are slated to open this year, and the futuristic stainless steel pod-like villas of the Sheybarah Island resort, designed by the architect of Dubai’s new Museum of the Future, are scheduled to debut in 2024. The entire Red Sea development will run on renewable energy, including all facilities, transportation, and, eventually, seaplanes.
Lying 125 miles to the north of the Red Sea, the 1,500 square miles of Amaala are located in the Prince Mohammad bin Salman Natural Reserve. AMAALA aims to be the “world’s first integrated family wellness destination,” with a program of holistic well-being experiences, professional consultations, personalized health programs, and a year-round calendar of events. The first phases, set around the Triple Bay marina, are scheduled to open mid-2024. One big draw of the destination will be the Foster + Partners–designed Red Sea Marine Life Institute, a conservation-driven research and visitor center incorporating multidimensional experiences. What that means in real terms is that you’ll be able to snorkel with rare species, participate in lab tours, and explore the underwater world in a submarine.
The original maritime gateway to Makkah along the Red Sea, Jeddah has been a conduit for generations of pilgrims making the journey, many of them choosing to stay and contributing to the multicultural spirit that exists here. Today, Jeddah feels like a place that’s determined to become a destination for the future, while proudly holding onto its history and heritage.
The city’s historic center of Al-Balad is one of the most fascinating urban destinations in the country: The UNESCO World Heritage site is filled with more than 650 buildings dating back 200 to 300 years. Once the heart of the city, Al-Balad had fallen into disrepair in recent years, and the Ministry of Culture has launched a major program to rescue and restore the most at-risk buildings.
But Al-Balad is not only about history. The neighborhood has already hosted the Red Sea Film Festival and the Balad Beast electronic music festival, with a lineup of big names like Busta Rhymes, Carl Cox, and DJ Jazzy Jeff, as well as popular male and female Saudi DJs. There’s plenty more on the horizon, including new boutique hotels.
Located on the edge of the capital Riyadh, Diriyah and its UNESCO World Heritage site At-Turaif are of huge historical and cultural significance to the nation. Considered to be the birthplace of the kingdom, this was the the original home of the Al Saud royal family and the site of the establishment of the first Saudi state in 1727. The restored Salwa Palace, a showcase of traditional Najdi mud-brick architecture, opened in late 2022. Now it welcomes international visitors, with museums and tours led by enthusiastic young Saudi guides. Overlooking At-Turaif is the new Bujairi Terrace dining village, home to more than 20 restaurants. They include international big names like Hakkasan and Long Chim and such homegrown brands as Maiz and Takya that serve high-end Saudi cuisine.
While tourism is a key feature, Diriyah will change the face of the capital itself, eventually incorporating 38 hotels (including luxury brands Four Seasons, Oberoi, Six Senses, and Rosewood), more than 26 cultural attractions and 400 luxury and lifestyle outlets, plentiful palm groves and parks, and the kingdom’s first opera house and contemporary art museum. In addition, community centers, academies, universities, and a new metro line will serve the 100,000 inhabitants expected to make Diriyah their home in the coming years.