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Pilgrims remain bedrock of Saudi tourism plans

A pilgrim prays during a visit to Mount Al-Noor in the holy city of Mecca. Saudi Arabia is building an additional 320,000 hotel rooms by 2030 Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
A pilgrim prays during a visit to Mount Al-Noor in the holy city of Mecca. Saudi Arabia is building an additional 320,000 hotel rooms by 2030
  • Almost 50% of tourism is religious
  • Relaxed visa system boosts numbers
  • Developers still focused on luxury

Saudi tourism is to undergo a massive expansion with religious travellers remaining its bedrock – but some hotel operators are wary of an overheated market.

The kingdom is aiming to bring in 150 million visitors per year by 2030, with tourism accounting for 10 percent of non-oil GDP, playing a key role in its economic transformation plan valued at $1.25 trillion. 

The Saudi Tourism Authority displayed the country’s offerings – from the futuristic luxury resorts in Neom, to wellness holidays in AlUla and mountain climbing in Aseer – at this year’s Arabian Travel Market in Dubai. 



The plans include an additional 320,000 hotel rooms by 2030 according to property consultant Knight Frank, with more than half of them expected to be in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. 

“Knight Frank’s analysis of hotel supply in Mecca and Medina reveals a significant figure of 221,000 hotel rooms announced, planned or under construction,” said the consultancy. Super-rich Muslims are also seeking homes there. 

It added that of the 320,000 extra hotel rooms, 251,500 will be in the luxury and upscale brackets, raising the share of high-end hotels from 66 to 72 percent of the total. 

The high percentage of religious tourism is telling. As the location of the annual Hajj pilgrimage and the year-round pilgrimage known as Umrah, Saudi Arabia can be sure to attract a solid base of these visitors who still account for nearly 50 percent of tourism. 

Pilgrimage tour and hotel operators say the opening up of the visa system since 2019 and the end of restrictions on businesses requiring a local partner have revolutionised the sector. 

“The strategy for 2030 means they need pilgrims from everywhere,” said Ahmed Saber, CEO of Indonesia-based Diar Al Manasik International.

“Before it was difficult to get the visa, difficult to get the package. But now it’s easy, you can go online.

“Businesses used to need a Saudi partner but now you can bring your company from outside and start business (registering) with the government,” he said, adding he had set up new offices in nine countries over the past year offering pilgrim tours. 

Earlier this year the government began offering visas on arrival for pilgrims who are resident in the EU, US and UK or who possess a valid visa for those countries. Nationals of Australia, Canada, China, Malaysia, Norway, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Thailand and Turkey can receive an Umrah visa on arrival. 

The Saudi market is so frenzied that few hoteliers seem to worry about cannibalisation amid the plethora of projects underway. 

Red Sea Global, a key tourism-focused giga-project, says it will have 79 hotels by 2030. Neom is to host at least 12 resorts. Even cutting edge mall projects like Cenomi Central’s Jawharat Riyadh, which is due to open in 2027, will contain hotels. 

Mandarin Oriental, which has only one luxury hotel in Riyadh among a number across the Gulf, is taking a cautious approach in contrast to some brands.

“Whilst we want to expand in Saudi Arabia, we are probably not on that progressive trajectory like some other luxury players,” said Michael Koth, general manager of the Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental in Abu Dhabi. 

“I dont think on a global scale it’s the only country one wants to invest in, but it’s one of the countries one needs to invest in. Other luxury operators have chosen to do it differently.”

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