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Aseer province is Saudi’s next untapped tourism hotspot

Saudi mountain tourists Reuters/Ahmed Yosri
Known for its mountainous scenery and green landscapes, Aseer contains Saudi Arabia's tallest peak
  • Aim to make it a leading sustainable, nature-based tourism destination
  • Red Sea coast mega-projects ‘just the beginning’ says tourism advisor
  • Improved transport connections part of plan to attract repeat visitors

The mountainous region of Aseer is Saudi Arabia’s next target for tourism investment, according to one of the kingdom’s most prominent industry leaders. 

Developing Aseer and encouraging repeat visits will be key to helping the kingdom meet its tourism goals, said Salman Gassim, government advisor and chief executive of Riyadh-headquartered Swiss Hospitality Company. 

Gassim, whose company provides accredited training for Saudi nationals in tourism and hospitality, is also chief executive of the Saudi Tourism Training and Recruitment (STTAR) Institute and vice-president of the Saudi Regional European Business Council at the Federation of Saudi Chambers. 

The Red Sea coast, where the kingdom is injecting more than $28 billion into the Red Sea and Amaala mega-projects, “is just the beginning,” he told AGBI.  

“Saudi Arabia holds limitless possibilities for future tourism hotspots. The lesser-known Aseer region holds a treasure trove of entertainment, cultural immersion and sporting activities.”

Known for its mountainous scenery and green landscapes, Aseer receives the most rainfall in the kingdom and contains its tallest peak, Al Soudah, at 3,000 metres. 

The Saudi government wants to transform Aseer into an international destination for sustainable, nature-based tourism. The aim is to attract eight million visitors by 2030 – three times as many as today – under a $13 million-plus strategy unveiled in 2021.

It is part of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 objectives to grow the tourism sector to account for 10 percent of national GDP, from around 6 percent today, and attract 100 million visitors by the end of the decade. 

Salman GassimSwiss Hospitality Company
Gassim says the Aseer region holds a ‘treasure trove of entertainment, cultural immersion and sporting activities’

Last June Aseer was awarded the title of World Region of Gastronomy 2024 by the Barcelona-based International Institute of Gastronomy, Culture, Arts and Tourism. 

To capitalise on this, in December 2022 the kingdom’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) set up Aseer Development Company to identify and develop opportunities for local and international investors in Aseer’s tourism and hospitality, health and sports, food, education and other areas. 

Next year a 32km road project will open, connecting Aseer’s main towns of Greater Abha, Khamis Mushait and Ahad Rafidah. 

With 13 road routes, 196 bus stops and 55 buses, the project is expected to boost economic development in Aseer and make it easier for tourists and others to travel around. 

Gassim told AGBI that developing Aseer is a key plank of the kingdom’s drive to broaden its sustainable tourism offering.

“It’s important to balance economic benefits with environmental conservation and cultural preservation…to ensure the long-term viability of the tourism industry. This should be a priority.”

Mountainous village in the fog, Aseer provinceEric Lafforgue/Hans Lucas via Reuters Connect
Last year Aseer was awarded the title of World Region of Gastronomy 2024

International visitor arrivals to Saudi Arabia have returned to pre-pandemic levels, with the figure for the first three months of 2023 up 64 percent on the same period in 2019, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation.  

International flight bookings to the kingdom this summer were also up for May, and they were up 8 percent for June, July and August compared to 2019, according to ForwardKeys.  

“Saudi Arabia’s tourism boom has been driven by diversifying offerings, simplifying visa processes, improving connectivity and hosting mega events,” Gassim noted.

But he added that “there are areas where more work is needed”. 

One of these is promoting sustainable tourism practices, he said. Another area “that requires attention” is the enhancement of visitor experiences, including improving domestic transport connections and offering a broader range of experiences to encourage repeat visits. 

“While significant progress has been made in developing attractions, ensuring exceptional visitor experiences throughout their journey is crucial for repeat visits and positive word-of-mouth recommendations,” Gassim said. 

As well as Aseer, the capital city Riyadh is another emerging tourism hotspot, according to Gassum, with projects such as Mukaab city centre, King Salman Park, Discovery Adventure Studio and Qiddiya in the pipeline.