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Saudi Arabia’s tourism sector is central to the kingdom’s Vision 2030 plans to transform and diversify its economy. With diverse natural landscapes and an array of underexplored heritage sites, Saudi Arabia intends to both draw in international leisure tourists and significantly increase the number of domestic tourists traveling around the country. It also plans to considerably expand religious tourism.
In October 2021, Saudi Arabia’s minister of tourism, Ahmed Al Khateeb, said the kingdom plans to invest more than $1 trillion in the sector over the next 10 years. The government is aiming to raise the contribution of tourism to gross domestic product from 3% in 2018 to more than 10% by 2030 and create 1 million new jobs in the tourism sector, a necessity for the kingdom’s growing youth population seeking employment.
The country has also set a target of attracting 100 million tourism visits per year by 2030. This includes 45 million domestic visits and 55 million international visits. Importantly, the Ministry of Tourism is using visits, rather than industry-standard visitors or international arrivals, as its key metric. One visitor may account for multiple visits, though a visit must be an overnight stay to be counted. For example, a person who visits 10 destinations in the country during a trip will count for 10 visits.
According to Lucidity Insights, by 2030, approximately 50% of visits to Saudi Arabia are expected to be for leisure, followed by 32% for religious tourism, 10% to visit friends and relatives, and 9% for business tourism. For comparison, in 2019 there were around 45 million visits: 40% were leisure tourists, 38% religious tourists, 13% tourists visiting friends and relatives, and 9% business tourists.
For context, Saudi Arabia welcomed 17.5 million international tourist arrivals in 2019. France, which is the top country for international tourism, received 91 million international tourist arrivals in 2019. Over half (9.3 million) of Saudi Arabia’s international tourist arrivals in 2019 were hajj and umrah pilgrims. These international pilgrims represented around 40% of the almost 22 million pilgrims who visited Mecca in 2019. The other 60% were domestic pilgrims. Expanding the pilgrimage is one of Saudi Arabia’s priorities. The country has set a target of hosting 30 million pilgrims by 2030, which is included within its overarching goal of 100 million annual visits.
Can It Be Done?
For a country that only introduced tourist visas in 2019, the targets for the sector are incredibly ambitious. Despite skepticism, however, Saudi Arabia is well on its way to meeting its tourism targets and is expected to surpass many of them. Domestic tourism targets have already been well exceeded. Many Saudi residents had few international travel options under coronavirus pandemic travel restrictions and have been curious to explore the country as new destinations open.
According to the minister of tourism, the country recorded 93.5 million tourism visits in 2022, including 77 million domestic visits and 16.5 million international visits, with Kuwait, Bahrain, Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, and India among the top source markets. From January through July 2022, Saudi Arabia achieved the highest year-on-year percentage change in international arrivals among the G-20 countries. In January, the minister of tourism said the country is aiming to attract 25 million international visits in 2023.
With China having recently eased its coronavirus restrictions on international travel, Chinese tourists could ultimately make up a big share of Saudi Arabia’s international visits. Many of the country’s official tourism targets, which were announced following Vision 2030’s launch in 2016, are likely to be revised upward given the recent successes.
Questions have also been raised regarding whether the country can deliver on its ambitious tourism destination projects. Yet tangible progress is being made and developments are well underway to prepare for a large influx of tourists. In one of the first major signs of progress, drone footage was released in October 2022 showing significant excavation work underway to prepare for construction at Neom, a futuristic region under development in northwest Saudi Arabia. This served as a welcome update from a country where developments can often seem opaque to outside observers. There are many more instances of tangible progress on projects across the country, and some destinations have already begun to welcome tourists.
The country’s first major tourist destination to open was AlUla, an ancient oasis and archaeological region in northwest Saudi Arabia. The area is home to rock-cut tombs, palm tree oases, and landscapes similar to the better-known Petra archaeological site in Jordan and its neighboring Wadi Rum desert. AlUla was a major crossroads along the ancient incense trading route. The area’s many sites include the Nabataean tombs at Hegra (also known as “Madain Saleh”), which was designated Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008.
The Royal Commission for AlUla was established by the government in 2017 to preserve and develop the region. And after having been largely closed off to outsiders for many years, AlUla started welcoming visitors in 2020. A handful of high-end hotels and camps have opened up since, and AlUla’s newly renovated airport now receives regular flights from Paris and Dubai. AlUla has a target of attracting 2 million visitors per year by 2035. As a sign of the growing attention the area is receiving, Condé Nast Traveler selected AlUla as one of its “Seven Wonders of the World” for 2023.
In December 2022, the Saudi gigaproject Diriyah began welcoming visitors to its first destinations – the 18th century mud-brick city At-Turaif, which was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2010, and the adjacent fine dining district Bujairi Terrace. Originally an oasis town 11 miles northwest of Riyadh, Diriyah is the ancestral hometown of the Al Saud family. Today, it is situated on the western edge of the modern city of Riyadh, which has expanded rapidly in recent decades. At-Turaif includes the remains of royal palaces, mosques, and houses and offers museums and interactive experiences showcasing Saudi history.
The Diriyah Gate Development Authority and the Diriyah Company are leading the project, which will serve as a mixed-use cultural, heritage, and lifestyle destination covering approximately 5.4 square miles. Many new districts within Diriyah are currently under construction and are expected to follow a phased opening up to 2030. These will be built in the traditional Arabian Najdi architectural style, and much of the area will be pedestrian friendly. Upon completion, Diriyah is expected to be the world’s largest mud-brick city.
Diriyah symbolizes a new era for Saudi Arabia, one in which the future and past come together as the country reimagines its national story and place in the world. The site is at the center of a new Saudi national identity that has been emerging over the past few years, and, as such, Diriyah is being promoted as a national icon. It also has a major focus on sustainability, using the tagline the “City of Earth.” The developers want Diriyah to become a regular gathering place for Riyadh’s residents and have set a target of 27 million annual visitors by 2030. Tourism is not the only market objective; the development will also include over 18,000 luxury residences, in addition to significant retail and office space.
The Red Sea (2023)
In 2023, the first hotels are slated to open at Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea project, which is under development along the country’s northwest coast. The destination, simply called The Red Sea, is centered around the Al Wajh lagoon, which hosts the world’s fourth-largest barrier coral reef, and includes an archipelago of 90 islands. The over 10,800 square mile site also encompasses a vast desert and volcanic landscape. By 2030, 22 of the islands are expected to have been developed and 50 hotels built. Unlike developments in Dubai, the islands here are natural, and the project has a major focus on environmental preservation and enhancing local marine life.
The project is being led by Red Sea Global, formally known as the Red Sea Development Company, and has a target of welcoming 1 million visitors per year by 2030. Progress updates released in December 2022 showed that more than 400,000 solar panels had been installed at the region’s solar panel farm, and images from February showed completion of the runway at the new Red Sea International Airport. In March, Red Sea Global shared a video of futuristic pod-like villas being installed on one of the islands.
Red Sea Global is also developing Amaala, an ultraluxury coastal destination located around 80 miles north of The Red Sea. It will encompass a 1,500 square mile area, and the first phase of the project is slated to open in mid-2024.
Of all of Saudi Arabia’s gigaprojects, Neom has received the most international attention. Covering over 10,000 square miles, the new region is nearly the size of Belgium and larger than Kuwait. The project has an array of goals, including developing future-focused industries, clean energy, and innovations in urban living. Neom also aims to become a major tourism destination and is marketing itself as “the world’s most ambitious tourism project.”
The scale of ambition characterizing the project has inevitably attracted skepticism, yet developments are underway. In January, Neom’s planners released their first progress film showing footage of large-scale work taking place at the region’s four main megaproject sites: The Line, Trojena, Sindalah, and Oxagon. While far from complete, it is possible to visit Neom. Saudia now offers direct flights from Neom Bay Airport to Dubai and London.
Sindalah will be a luxury island resort and the first destination to open at Neom, in 2024. Trojena, planned for completion in 2026, will be a mountain tourism destination in the center of Neom. It will feature a massive artificial freshwater lake and an outdoor winter ski village, which will be a first for the Gulf region. The site’s cooler climate and mountainous heights usually bring freezing temperatures and light snowfall in winter. With the help of artificial snow, which Neom technicians have been testing out at the site, December to March is planned as the destination’s main skiing season. The site is due to serve as host of the Asian Winter Games in 2029 and has a target of 700,000 visitors per year by 2030.
The Line, designed as an over 100 mile-long, 500 meter-high, 200 meter-wide linear city, is also expected to be a unique draw for tourists. Oxagon, Neom’s industrial hub and main harbor, will comprise the largest floating structure in the world. The Neom region is also home to nature reserves and ancient archaeological sites, such as the Midian Tombs.
Other Destinations and Entertainment Opportunities
Numerous other emerging tourist destinations seek to draw visitors, including Jeddah’s Old Town (Al-Balad), Al-Ahsa oasis in the Eastern Province (the largest self-contained oasis in the world), Al Baha (a high-altitude forested valley region home to historic stone fortresses), Mount Soudah (the highest peak in Saudi Arabia at 3,015 meters), and terraced mountain farms in the south.
Saudi Arabia is also rolling out various entertainment projects that are expected to draw tourists. These include Qiddiya, a massive entertainment city under construction near Riyadh; the Saudi Seasons festivals held across the country; the annual MDLBEAST Soundstorm electronic dance music festival; and global sporting events, such as the Formula One Grand Prix and the world heavyweight boxing championship.
Positioning Saudi Arabia as a Tourist Destination
Significant social and economic reforms in the last few years in Saudi Arabia have helped to better position the tourism sector and make travel easier for domestic and international visitors. These include a significant shift in gender norms and a substantial expansion of women’s rights compared to just five years ago (the government’s Visit Saudi website now has dedicated advice for solo female travelers) as well as the easing of numerous strict traditions and practices (including the virtual abolition of the country’s religious police). There has also been an increase in training and local labor force participation in the tourism sector. However, it is still a nascent sector; greater training capacity and infrastructure will be needed to provide all of the services, transportation, and accommodations necessary for large numbers of tourists. Other recent developments include the launch of a series of massive airport expansions and a newly announced airline – Riyadh Air.
Improving understanding of the country’s diverse destinations will be important for reshaping perceptions of Saudi Arabia as a destination and key to attracting more international visitors. Conveying Saudi Arabia’s cultural richness and heritage to the world will be important for what has long been seen as a relatively closed society and unknown destination. There has been gradual progress in this direction. In a boost to its credentials as an international tourism player and heritage destination, in January, Saudi Arabia was elected to chair the UNESCO World Heritage Committee for 2023.
What the shape of competition will look like with other regional destinations, such as neighboring tourism magnet Dubai, will remain a key question. Here, Saudi Arabia can focus on its competitive advantages. One of the things that makes Saudi destinations stand apart is a strong focus on nature and heritage. As the world’s 13th-largest country, Saudi Arabia’s destinations also offer significant variety, spanning diverse landscapes across an enormous landmass.
In many ways, Saudi Arabia cannot afford to fail in its diversification strategy. The country faces a future that will eventually be characterized by ever decreasing international oil demand and lower oil prices. This reality raises the importance of the country’s tourism push and explains why the government is serious about these hugely ambitious projects and is pressing ahead with them. These projects could put Saudi Arabia on the global tourism map and make the country a must-visit destination. However, to successfully attract large numbers of international tourists over the coming years, the kingdom will need to focus on its competitive advantages and continue to lay the groundwork for welcoming an influx of new visitors.
is an independent researcher and consultant specialized in sustainable development in the Gulf Arab states.
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