A Taylor Swift concert in Saudi Arabia ‘hopefully soon’: Saudi Tourism’s Alhasan Aldabbagh

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A Taylor Swift concert is good news for any country’s tourism. It gets Swifties on their toes, making their way to the concert of their choice, as Taylor belts out hit after hit at one of those surreal gigs in cities across the globe.

Sydney has seen it. Singapore is gearing up. And if all goes well, Swift might soon be making her way to the desert of Saudi Arabia, says Alhasan Aldabbagh, president of APAC markets at Saudi Tourism Authority.

Alhasan Aldabbagh was in the capital for SATTE, where India Today caught up with him.

Alhasan Aldabbagh, president of APAC markets, Saudi Tourism Authority

Over a half-hour chat, Aldabbagh tells us that ‘discussions were on’ about getting Taylor Swift to perform in Saudi Arabia. “We’ll see… maybe there will be some good news soon,” says Aldabbagh, as we ask him if Swifties could expect a concert in Saudi soon.

But Taylor Swift or not, Saudi Arabia is quite the destination to visit. The country has its eyes set firmly on Vision 2030.

By 2030, the world will see a new Saudi Arabia emerging out of the desert as Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman pushes the pedal on development, infrastructure, and tourism. Saudi Arabia is looking east for tourism, and India is bang at the centre of their scaling-up plans.

AlUla, Saudi Arabia’s ‘Open Museum’. Photo: Saudi Arabia Tourism

“I believe if you are true about your objectives and ambition about a market like India… we need to understand the people. And once we understand the people and the differences, and India is a big market – with many cities, with many geographical areas, with many cultures, many languages, and religions… Once we understand that, we can design more customised offers for the different regions. And this is how we will truly become a top destination for the India market,” says Aldabbagh.

Everything that Saudi Arabia is doing at the moment is aligned towards its Vision 2030. If you were to go on social media – be it X, Instagram or Facebook, you would be bombarded by sponsored ads from Saudi Tourism. The promotion is aggressive, and on a massive scale, so, of course, tourism plays a large part in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.

“Tourism links to everything in the vision, because the vision has three pillars: the first pillar is a vibrant society, the second pillar is an ambitious nation, and the third is a thriving economy. You will see that tourism is part of every single pillar because it connects everything,” says Aldabbagh.

AlUla in Saudi Arabia. Photo: AFP

“You need to open borders to allow more people to come and discover Saudi, and connect with people. And once that’s happened, then opportunities will come. People will start to partner in business, and people will start to co-create in art and different communities, like technology, science, literature; all of that. And that’s how an economy flourishes. So, it’s a catalyst for other industries to grow,” says Aldabbagh.

We ask him about an ‘insane’ video of The Line in Neom and The Line that went viral recently, and he takes us through this city that derives its name from the first three letters of the Ancient Greek prefix neo – meaning ‘new’. The ‘M’ in Neom is the first from ‘Mustaqbal’, an Arabic word meaning ‘future’.

The New Future of Saudi Arabia is a Mega City-esque futuristic city straight out of, perhaps, ‘The Matrix’. Neom, this outrageously ambitious project, has the entire world’s eyes on it.

The Line, for example, is a city within two parallel mirror-encased skyscrapers, which will run through over 170 kilometres of mountain and desert terrain.

“Neom is a very well-known project today globally. It has some giga-infrastructures that are in the pipeline, like The Line; then there’s Trojena, which is hosting the Asian Winter Cup in 2029, Oxagon, which is an industrial area powered by hydrogen plants, and we have Sindalah, which is opening in Q4 of this year. It’s a beautiful island with many properties, with a state-of-the-art yacht club, and a full golf course and shopping experience, and dining as well. So, it’s gonna be something very special,” says Aldabbagh.

Saudi Arabia is looking at a six-fold increase in tourists from India to Saudi Arabia by 2030. How do they plan on achieving this target, we ask.

Aldabbagh tells us that last year, Saudi Arabia welcomed 1.5 million Indian travellers, “This includes business, people who are coming to visit family and friends, Umrah, and leisure ones. We’re seeing a massive pick-up in leisure visits, and our target is to reach 7.5 million by the year 2030.”

Sunset at Marayah Conce. Photo: Saudi Tourism

“The way we’re doing that is, first and foremost, making accessibility to Saudi easier than ever. So, we’re increasing air connectivity. We’re adding new routes connecting new cities to Saudi, increasing the frequency of existing flights. We’re making visas easier as well. So, people can apply for a visa through our VFS offices. We have 10 of those today, and we are going to expand them. The application process has been simplified. You can get it in three days,” says Aldabbagh.

So, are they looking at making entry to Saudi Arabia visa-free for Indian passport holders?

“Today, anyone who’s holding a UK, US or Schengen visa, can get an e-visa or visa on arrival. The stopover program is free. So, anyone who is flying via Saudi Arabia by Flynas and stopping in Saudi, can get a free 96-hour visa – up to four days, for free,” Aldabbagh tells us.

Bujjairi Terrace in At-Turaif district of Diriyah. Photo: Saudi Tourism

“We have a lot of packages that are available today that cater to different segments. Whether it’s groups travelling together, or small family or friends, or even solo travellers. We have designed these experiences and itineraries to fit the Indian travellers, and we’ve been working very closely with our Indian travel partners, tour operators and travel agents to build those packages,” says Aldabbagh.

If one were to go to Saudi Arabia today, what are the top 5 must-visit places, we ask.

“There are a lot of destinations, and it really depends on the profile of the travellers. So, you have the families, which is the big segment,” says Aldabbagh.

What about, say, the millennial, female solo traveller?

“It’s interesting. We’re seeing a lot of solo female travellers coming to Saudi, breaking the notion that Saudi is a conservative, unsafe place – which is completely the opposite of reality. More or more solo female travellers are coming to Saudi, sharing great stories and their memories, and their experience.

AlUla is a hit with travellers. Photo: Getty Images

“People love to go to AlUla. It is beautiful. We call it the Open Museum. It has an old history of a civilisation called the Nebatean civilisation, which dates back thousands of years. But more than that, you know, all the resorts and experiences are part of nature.

“We’re protecting nature and putting you in the middle of nature so that you get this authentic experience – whether it’s stargazing or climbing the mountains, or having a romantic dinner… these are the kind of unparalleled experiences that are part of what the solo travellers are reporting to be one of the best,” gushes Aldabbagh.

What about scuba diving?

“Scuba diving is big! We have one of the most beautiful diving spots in the world in the Red Sea. The Red Sea is known for its vibrant corals and fish…” he says.

The Red Sea. Photo: Saudi Tourism

What’s the shark scene like, given that the Red Sea has witnessed quite a few of them?

“We don’t have any reports of, you know, dangerous sharks here. Most of them are nurse sharks, actually [no, nurse sharks are not dangerous]. So, I’m glad that we are not seeing any major reports or accidents due to sharks. Overall, it has been a sought-after diving spot by divers from all over the world,” Aldabbagh tells us.

“Now, with the Red Sea development that opened up this year, we’ve got St Regis and Sis Senses. There are great new destinations that haven’t been explored before. A lot of divers appreciate this. They want to go to the unexplored untouched areas,” says Aldabbagh.

And indeed, the Red Sea in Saudi boasts the world’s fourth-largest coral reef. With the Great Barrier Reef battling erosion, people are increasingly looking for new areas to take to the waters in.

The Red Sea in Saudi Arabia has several luxury resorts coming up by 2030. Photo: Saudi Tourism

At this point, we address the elephant in the room: alcohol. How does Saudi Arabia plan on welcoming the Gen Z, or later millennial or corporate or leisure traveller who would like a drink or two?

Alcohol is forbidden in Saudi Arabia, and ‘that remains the case’, Aldabbagh tells us.

“We believe that we will make you so occupied and interested in Saudi, with the rich cultural experiences, that alcohol will be the last thing on your mind!” Aldabbagh laughs.

The proposed ski resort of Trojena in the Neom. Photo: Neom

What are the cultural sensibilities that an Indian traveller should keep in mind when they are visiting Saudi?

“We want all people, all sorts, all ages, all sexes, all different ethnic backgrounds to feel welcome. To feel at home. Our slogan is that, you know, we’re opening our homes to people. We’re not just opening up our country. We’re opening our homes. Saudi… in the Arabian DNA, they are very hospitable in nature. People, hundreds of years ago, hosted nomads in their houses. Even though they are strangers. They fed them, they gave them shelter, until they continued on their journey. This is part of the DNA,” he says.

“So, now when tourists come to Saudi, we’re treating them with open arms, a lot of people are inviting them to their homes. So, this is really how we are treating people,” says Aldabbagh.

Mecca. Photo: Unsplash

And sure, hospitality is one connection that runs strong in both the Indian and the Arab DNA.

“Absolutely! We have a lot of shared values. And this is one of the reasons why we think Saudi is great. We share commonalities. Family values are important in India, as well as in Saudi. Even the type of experiences, people’s pastimes are similar. Kids’ fun activities are also big in Saudi. And this is why India is one of the key focus markets for us,” he adds.

We ask Aldabbagh what in Saudi would appeal the most to the luxury traveller.

“There is a lot. We are redefining luxury. Luxury is not just about expensive stay, expensive resorts; but it’s also about having authentic experiences. Luxury is about having exclusivity; luxury is about sustainable tourism as well. And all of these three values that I mention are part of how we’re designing all the new projects that are coming up,” he says.

“At all the resorts and the hotels, we’re making sure that we are true and authentic to the locals. That’s why you’ll feel that the architecture is adopting and embracing not only the Saudi theme, but also of the area. They are hiring people locally to work in the hospitality industry to bring that culture as well. That’s how you create an authentic experience. Sustainability is important as well in terms of how we’re powering the energy for these resorts; we’re making sure that we’re giving back to the environment,” says Aldabbagh.

Elephant Rock in AlUla. Photo: Unsplash

“You know, AlUla, the whole area, was submerged under water many thousands of years ago. You’ll find the topography of the mountains very oddly shaped. So, they are huge at the top and very thin at the bottom – some of them, not all. They are cone-shaped and very unique. Now, imagine that your lodging is right in front of it. In this beautiful set-up. You don’t find it everywhere,” says Aldabbagh.

Saudi Arabia has roped in Lionel Messi, the GOAT, as their global ambassador. So, he was but an inevitable topic of conversation. Aldabbagh tells us how Messi’s participation has helped break many preconceived notions about Saudi Arabia.

“People think that Saudi is all desert. But the desert part is what makes Saudi authentic. There are a lot of beautiful desert camps made in a way that they are luxurious, comfortable, exciting. But we have a lot of places in Saudi that are actually mountains. Did you know that we have snow?” asks Alhasan.

What Trojena is supposed to look like. Photo: Neom

Yes, of course, Trojena is, after all, the Asian Winter Cup host for 2029. And a winter Cup isn’t going to be possible without snow, no! Trojena is an area within Neom ‘where winter temperatures drop below zero Celsius and year-round temperatures are generally 10 degrees cooler than the rest of the region’, says its website.

“In the South of Saudi, there are mountains where the weather is pleasant all year round. Other than that, there’s a lot happening. Today, we can comfortably say that Saudi is one of the most happening destinations in the world. We have a lot of events in the summer, in the winter. We have activations, we have the boulevard in Riyadh, we have the citywalk… We’re also hosting a lot of sports tournaments, bringing a lot of concerts to Saudi, Formula 1, soccer as well. And hopefully very soon, in cricket,” says Alhasan, before we swiftly move to the Swift question.

If Saudi Arabia does manage to get Swift for a concert – and hopefully soon, as Aldabbagh assures us – it will be a tourism coup of sorts. Till then, there’s more than enough to see in Saudi Arabia, where the old world seamlessly blends in with the new future.

Published By:

ananya bhattacharya

Published On:

Mar 1, 2024

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