Angela Salmeron
Angela Salmeron (Research Director, EMEA Sustainable Strategies and Technologies)
Louisa Barker
Louisa Barker (Research Manager, IDC Government Insights)
Uzair Mujtaba
Uzair Mujtaba (Senior Research Manager - IDC Saudi Arabia)
Massimiliano Claps
Max Claps (Research Director, IDC Government Insights)

Saudi Arabia is making good on its ambition to become a global smart and sustainable tourist destination.

Not long ago, however, such an outcome seemed unlikely. When we traveled from Europe to the kingdom in 2015, for example, we were required to prepare piles of documents months in advance. We also had to make a trip to a Saudi visa application center, which existed in only a handful of European cities.

Getting through passport control at King Khaled International Airport meant standing in line for at least an hour. The quickest way to get to town was via a pre-booked car service, which invariably came in the form of a gas-guzzling SUV. After arrival in Riyadh, the entertainment options were slim.

But now, nine years later, the immigration process and airplane boarding can take literally a blink of an eye. This reflects the Saudi aviation industry’s investments in growth, customer experience, and operational excellence.

Commuting to Riyadh also comes in all shapes and forms of private transportation — and public transit is on the way. The city buzzes with museums, theaters, concerts, sport events, and Michelin star restaurants. It will host, along with partner cities across the country, the Asian Winter Games 2029, as well Formula 1, Formula E, the Dakar Rally, World Expo 2030, and the FIFA World Cup in 2034.

Obviously, these rapid changes did not occur accidentally. They are the fruits of an ambitious vision to enhance the country’s social fabric and lay the foundation for a diversified economy that leverages the full spectrum of its population’s talents and contributions. Saudi Arabia aspires to reduce its dependence on oil and ensure economic resilience by cultivating sectors such as tourism and entertainment.

Bold Vision — Sustainable Execution

The government’s Vision 2030 marks a pivotal chapter in the history of the kingdom, signaling a transformative shift towards the goals of openness, cultural evolution, and economic diversification. Travel, tourism, and entertainment are strategic priorities in this economic diversification and social reform road map.

The Digital Tourism Strategy aims to boost tourism’s contribution to GDP from 3% to 10% by 2030 and to increase the number of foreign visitors from around 60 million to 100 million annually by 2030. Investments are already paying off.

Since the opening of its doors in 2019 to international tourists, the kingdom has become the fastest growing tourism destination in the G20.

But the ambition extends beyond growth of the tourism industry. Giga projects like Neom, Diriyah, and Red Sea — backed by the $600 billion Public Investment Fund (PIF) — are being developed not only to increase capacity to host new residents, visitors, and global events, but also to reimagine the quality of life and the cultural, heritage, leisure experiences, environmental sustainability, and innovation expectations of next-generation tourists.

Saudi Arabia seeks to explore “the art of the possible” in terms of eco-friendly tourism, architectural design, and green technologies. The kingdom seeks to align these developments with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The aim is to pioneer a responsible tourism model that safeguards the country’s rich natural and cultural heritage while fostering economic prosperity and improving Saudi quality of life.

By 2030, the kingdom plans to reduce by 50% the carbon emissions generated by the tourism industry. In parallel, it is creating wildlife sanctuaries and developing sustainable tourism initiatives that protect endangered species and the natural landscape. Planned developments at the Red Sea project are an example of authorities’ regenerative environmental approach.

Saudi Arabia largely imports its food from abroad and is running out of water. To address this, Neom plans to become food self-sufficient and source water from carbon-free desalination plants. Some resorts are exploring the concepts of biomimicry and developing nature-based architectural designs.

To accelerate the execution of such an ambitious vision, Saudi public institutions and private investors are working closely with local and global technology companies to empower them to reimagine the visitor experience and operational excellence in a sustainable manner.

Sustainable Tourism: Powered by Tech Innovation

The Saudi Tourism Authority’s (STA) traveler-centric approach and ambition to develop personalized experiences for visitors is a major differentiator from other destinations. Visitors who share their interests and preferences, for example, can receive customized recommendations during their stay in the kingdom. For world sports events like Formula E, guests can enjoy immersive experiences.

Digital technology is also powering Saudi Arabia’s long-standing tradition of hosting the annual religious pilgrimages of Hajj and Umrah, with a range of apps offered to enhance the safety and experience of millions of pilgrims from around the globe.

Plans also call for the building and operation of digital-by-design entertainment facilities that leverage digital twins and metaverse-centric solutions. These require partnering with technology companies that can deliver next-generation digital infrastructure, platforms, and user experience capabilities that align with the kingdom’s sustainable tourism and entertainment agenda.

To execute these ambitious visions, local and global technology vendors need to partner with the senior leaders driving the giga projects, as well as with national authorities like the STA and the Authority for Data and AI (SDAIA), which serves as a strategic decision maker for Saudi aspirations to leverage AI to enhance smart tourism destinations. Technology vendors and advisors can also help the kingdom leverage international best practices, such as the UNWTO framework, and to set the baseline and measure progress against sustainable tourism targets.

From personalized travel experiences to efficient resource management and environmentally and socially responsible engineering and construction supply chains, Saudi Arabia is being watched by global leaders who are also reimagining and developing new standards for sustainable tourist destinations.

Tech innovation will be critical to execute such an ambitious vision while confronting a demographic boom and limited natural resources — all while keeping a human touch that allows tourists as well as citizens to enjoy the fruits of these developments.

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