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Saudi tourism appeal growing ‘at the speed of light’

Hotel group Marriott has presented a vision for its properties on luxury island Sindalah Marriott
Hotel group Marriott has presented a vision for its properties on luxury island Sindalah
  • Saudi Arabia recorded 93.5 million visits in 2022
  • The kingdom plans international air connectivity to 250 cities by 2030
  • GCC hospitality sector will need to create 90,000 jobs to meet demand

Saudi Arabia’s tourism sector is growing “at the speed of light”, a senior official said as the Gulf kingdom made its debut at the Berlin travel show.

According to Fahd Hamidaddin, CEO of Saudi Tourism Authority, the country recorded a total of 93.5 million domestic and international visits last year as it transforms “at a scale and pace the world has never witnessed before”.

He added that in January, Saudi Arabia achieved a record number of inbound overnight visitors: “We continue to gain momentum on this growth journey and it is critical that we inspire and engage our partners to join us as we reinforce our commitment to the sector globally.”

The kingdom’s first participation at the ITB Berlin travel trade show in Germany comes as it aims to welcome 100 million visits by 2030. With a 121 percent increase from pre-pandemic international tourism levels, Saudi Arabia is outpacing global tourism sector recovery and has committed $550 billion to new destinations by 2030.

Saudi Arabia is also planning to increase international air connectivity from 140 cities to more than 250 by the end of the decade. 

A partnership with Wizz Air launched 24 new routes from Europe to Saudi Arabia and, in January, the first free 96-hour stopover visa was launched through national carriers Saudia and Flynas.

Real estate service provider Colliers said the GCC will require more than 90,000 skilled professionals in its hospitality sector by 2026, of which nearly 86,000 will be needed in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Analysts at Fitch Solutions observed that strong government support will be the main driver behind the “fast development” of the tourism sector in coming years, noting: “Authorities have shown strong commitment in developing the sector through the streamlining of tourist visas, reducing the influence of hardline Islamic clerics, improving the business environment and establishing several entities and funds with the purpose of developing tourist attractions.

“We anticipate that these efforts aimed at improving the country’s attractiveness as a tourist destination will continue in coming quarters.

“Granted, religious tourism in Mecca and Medina will keep accounting for the majority of inbound arrivals.

“However, we anticipate a sharp pick up in leisure tourism along the Red Sea Cost and business visits to Riyadh.”

Marriott will open three properties on Neom’s Sindalah island. Picture: Marriott.

In terms of source markets, Fitch believes that growth in inbound arrivals will largely continue to come from nearby destinations and the broader Middle East. 

In 2019 Pakistan, Kuwait and India were the top three arrivals markets, and Fitch said they are likely to remain so until 2030, but sharp growth is also expected from Qatar and Egypt. 

“We believe it will not take long before the kingdom will be able to attract large numbers of tourists from the West,” Fitch said.

In 2022 Saudi also extended eVisa regulations to GCC countries and visas on arrival to holders of valid US, UK and Schengen visas.

Saudi Arabia is the largest exhibitor at this year’s edition of ITB Berlin, reflecting the tourism growth the country is witnessing. 

International interest

Since opening to tourism in 2019 Saudi has been recognised as the world’s fastest-growing tourism destination in the G20. The country previously relied on religious tourists embarking on Umrah and Hajj pilgrimages.

International hotel brands are rushing into Saudi Arabia to be part of the tourism transformation.

Diriyah Gate Development Authority, responsible for the Diriyah giga-project, has signed 32 hotel management agreements while Marriott International said on Wednesday it has inked a deal with Neom to open three properties on its luxury island destination Sindalah next year.

In January Stuart Deeson, vice president of operations for the region at Hyatt, told AGBI that Saudi Arabia was witnessing a “significant point in history”. 

Hyatt, which is headquartered in Chicago, anticipates room increases of more than 80 percent in Saudi Arabia by late 2025

Real estate consultancy group Knight Frank said Saudi Arabia will need to launch new airlines in the next few years to support the expected “golden age” of tourism in the kingdom.

It added that the hospitality market is set to be transformed under Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 programme, with 310,000 new hotel rooms due for completion by the end of the decade.

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