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Saudi flight bookings above pre-Covid levels 

Saudi airline flight bookings Reuters/Ahmed Yosri
The new instant e-visa is among several initiatives Saudi Arabia has launched over the past year to attract visitors
  • Growth driven by Egypt, partly due to Hajj, says ForwardKeys
  • Summer bookings for wider GCC up 61% on 2019 
  • Saudi aims to attract 10m tourists a year by 2030 

International flight bookings to Saudi Arabia this summer are up 8 percent compared with the same time in 2019, indicating a post-pandemic recovery as the kingdom develops its tourism industry. 

As of May 23, flight bookings to Saudi Arabia in June, July and August were mainly driven by arrivals from Egypt.

They were up 204 percent compared with the same period in 2019, according to data compiled for AGBI by travel trends and analytics company ForwardKeys. 

Bookings from the UK were up 113 percent over the same review period.

Arrivals from the US were up 58 percent.

The growth is largely a result of Saudi Arabia this year fully lifting Covid-enforced restrictions on the number of visitors for the annual Hajj pilgrimage, ForwardKeys said. 

Around 2.6 million pilgrims visited in 2019 before the pandemic struck. The kingdom permitted only limited numbers of Saudi residents in 2020 and 2021. It then welcomed back one million pilgrims from overseas last year.

“Saudi Arabia is set to be the fastest growing nation in the GCC for tourist arrivals this summer, with around four times as many scheduled flight bookings as last year,” Olivier Ponti, vice-president of insights at ForwardKeys, said.

“This can largely be attributed to the Hajj pilgrimage in July, without a cap on the numbes for the first time since the pandemic.”

Total international arrivals in Saudi Arabia

2018 vs 2017+7%
2019 vs 2018+9%
2020 vs 2019-76% (March-December -93%)
2021 vs 2019-92%
2022 vs 2019-40%
Q1 2023 vs 2019+3%
Summer (June-August) vs 2019+8%
Source: ForwardKeys (correct as of May 23)

Saudi Arabia is pursuing an ambitious tourism growth strategy having opened its doors to the world for the first time in 2018.

Under its Vision 2030 economic diversification plan, it aims to attract 100 million visitors each year and grow tourism’s GDP contribution to 10 percent, from 6 percent.

The planned launch of a second Saudi national airline, Riyadh Air, in 2025, the construction of tourism mega-projects such as Red Sea and Amaala, new hotels and family-friendly entertainment destinations, are central planks of the strategy. 

ForwardKeys’ data shows that, as of May 23, Saudi Arabia was most popular for family-sized groups of three to five people. This cohort increased by 23 percent compared to 2019.

Solo travellers have yet to fully recover, reaching 91 percent of pre-Covid levels. 

The data also shows that total international arrivals for the full year 2022 were still significantly down on 2019 as a whole, by 40 percent.

But in the first quarter of 2023 flight bookings to the kingdom grew by 3 percent compared with the same period of 2019. 

Flight bookings SaudiReuters/Saudi Press Agency
Flight booking growth looks set to continue this summer, with the one million cap on the number of visitors for the Hajj pilgrimage no longer in force

This upward trend “looks set to continue”, ForwardKeys said.

“Recovery, post-Covid, of international flight arrivals in Saudi Arabia really started to accelerate from September 2022,” they added.

“That was just one month after the kingdom reopened its borders to passengers with tourist visas (who had not visited red-list countries within the past 14 days).

“With the Fifa World Cup boosting arrivals in the region at the end of 2022, Saudi Arabia was able to attract tourists off the back of this global sporting event. 

“Growth looks set to continue this summer, with the one million cap on Hajj pilgrims no longer in force.”

ForwardKeys only publishes percentage growth figures rather than total booking numbers, citing contractual constraints.

Its data shows a positive outlook for the GCC terms of flight bookings, AGBI can reveal.

Overall arrivals to the GCC are 3 percent behind 2019, but bookings for June, July and August are up 61 percent as of May 18.  

Air tickets to Kuwait were 53 percent ahead of 2022 figures, 32 percent ahead for Qatar, and 31 percent ahead for Oman. It did not supply UAE figures. 

“This highlights the acceleration towards full recovery since travel restrictions were removed globally over the last 12 months,” Ponti said.  

The data echoes the findings of the UN World Tourism Organization’s World Tourism Barometer report last month.

The report showed that in the first three months of 2023 international visitor arrivals to the wider Middle East region were 15 percent higher than in the same period of 2019. 

The GCC figure was 33 percent, driven by huge increases in travellers visiting Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the report added. 

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