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Saudi Arabia’s tourism ambitions are making waves

However the kingdom still has a lot of work to do

People, Person, Adult Saudi Tourism Authority
Argentinian football icon Lionel Messi and his family visited Saudi Arabia earlier in May

The global tourism industry was out in full force at the beginning of May, meeting together at the annual Arabian Travel Market (ATM) event. 

For many of the region’s executives, the most popular tourism destination was probably not your first guess – it wasn’t Dubai or Egypt, or even Qatar. .

The market that everyone was asking and talking about at the ATM was Saudi Arabia: from airline chiefs to tourism bosses, they were telling the media they see the kingdom as an up-and-coming destination – and how they would look to compete.

Having personally returned to Riyadh last year, it’s not hard to see why Saudi Arabia is making waves in the tourism industry. The country has opened itself up to a range of entertainment events and facilities, from Formula 1 and Formula E to boxing, football and golf. 

Investments are creating destinations such as Diriyah, AlUla and Asir (watch out for Soudah as the next place to visit). This year, Red Sea Global is set to open its first resorts on the Hijaz coastline. As someone who lived on the Red Sea coast, all I can say is that the place is stunning. 

And to top it off, Saudi Arabia recently launched Riyadh Air – the kingdom’s second flag carrier that will operate flights to more than two hundred destinations.

So I’m not surprised that its peers are taking note. The country’s tourism minister has talked of $6 trillion worth of opportunities in the sector. It is backing this up with education, and is training over 100,000 Saudis a year in tourism-related subjects. 

Saudi Tourism Authority
Saudi Arabia’s pavilion at the Arabian Travel Market event showcased its diversity of unique attractions

More work to do

Admittedly, the kingdom still has much work to do. The number of routes into and out of the capital needs to be at least that of Doha or Dubai (Riyadh Air will address this issue). More hotels are needed in major locations. 

With this in mind, why are others so worried?

Tourism is a choice: where to go and what to do. And while Dubai offers something different from Riyadh, there are two issues at play. 

Firstly, tourism is the largest financial outflow for the country, as many Saudi nationals decide to spend their time abroad. By giving them a choice at home, more will look to spend time exploring the kingdom and what it has to offer. 

The second focus group is foreigners, specifically high spenders who want to do something different. It’s apparent that Saudi Arabia is looking to grow its tourism sector initially by targeting high earners who are looking for a luxury stay in the desert or on the coast. 

Tourism in Saudi Arabia won’t be pitched at backpackers, but rather those who can afford to stay at a high-end resort and who want to enjoy a destination that is sustainable, where local culture and hospitality is prized. Mass tourism may follow.

It may feel a little strange for some readers to think of their next destination as Jeddah or AlUla. However, given how fast the kingdom is moving to build up an industry I wouldn’t be surprised if more of us start talking a little more about such places being on our bucket lists.

Alex Malouf is a marketing communications executive who has spent the past 18 years in the Middle East