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Reimagined kingdom: Saudi Arabia’s tourism challenge

Saudi Arabia tourism Habitas
Habitas offers sustainable luxury in the remote Al Ula area, one of several tourism attractions in Saudi Arabia
  • Hotels and attractions to generate new income streams and jobs
  • Rotana trebling its hotel rooms to over 6,000 in coming years
  • Kingdom wants to attract 100m visitors annually by 2030   

Not so long ago, the extent of tourism in Saudi Arabia amounted to pilgrims and business travellers. Other visitors were largely discouraged.

Attracting them is now a priority, in a reimagined kingdom where hotels, leisure venues and cultural assets stand to generate income and jobs. 

Saudi Arabia now has ambitious goals in tourism: it wants to attract 100 million visitors annually by 2030, making it one of the top five global destinations. It also wants to create a million new jobs in the sector by 2030.

The green shoots emerged in 2019, when the first tourist visas were issued.    

Vision 2030 is the primary driver of its tourism push,” said Reem el-Shafaki, leader of DinarStandard’s travel and tourism practice. 

“The objective is to diversify the economy away from oil dependency and make tourism a significant contributor to GDP.” 

That is still a seismic challenge, but analysts see a logic behind the tourism push.

‘Build it and they will come’

“Saudi Arabia’s modus operandi is akin to that of some Gulf nations, like the UAE, which is: build it and they will come,” a spokesperson for Euromonitor, a research firm, said. 

“And they certainly have been building in an effort to diversify their offering. The kingdom has been investing heavily in the development of tourism infrastructure, including new airports, hotels, and cultural attractions.”

According to Euromonitor’s forecast, Saudi Arabia’s tourism sector will record a 42 percent increase of inbound trips over the next five years.  

Meanwhile, international hotel groups are doubling down with new projects. 

“As we speak, over 40,000 new hotel rooms are under construction, which is by far the highest in the region,” said Siegfried Nierhaus, vice president for the Middle East at Deutsche Hospitality, which has hotel projects underway in Saudi Arabia.   

Saudi tourismRed Sea Global
The Red Sea Project is set to be a big draw for Saudi tourism

This positions the kingdom as one of the most dynamic travel and hospitality markets globally, said Guy Hutchinson, president and CEO at Rotana. He cites figures from analysts Smith Travel Research that rank Saudi Arabia behind only China and the US globally in terms of the number of hotel rooms currently being built. 

“Saudi Arabia presents one of our key markets, where we are developing seven hotels. They will almost triple the number of rooms to over 6,000 in the next four years,” Hutchinson said.

“We are also in negotiations for five new properties under the Edge by Rotana brand, in Riyadh and another one in Al Baha.”   

Luxury tourism

“Saudi Arabia is a country with a rich history and culture, stunning natural landscapes, and modern entertainment and sports facilities. It offers a diverse range of attractions that can appeal to a broad spectrum of tourists,” said Nierhaus.    

High net-worth individuals form a core target market. 

“Saudi Arabia punches above its weight when it comes to luxury spending, said the Euromonitor spokesperson.

“It offers ample opportunities for luxury tourism domestically, thanks to rising disposable incomes and overall wealth, particularly among the rising younger urban middle class.” 

Religious tourism remains important

It will also seek to attract more religious tourism. Hajj and Umrah visitor numbers are due to treble to over 30 million by 2030.   

“Saudi Arabia has been investing heavily in infrastructure and facilities, including the expansions to the Haram in Mecca and Medina,” said el-Shafaki.

Saudi tourismCreative Commons/Prof Mortel
The kingdom is investing in tourism infrastructure and facilities in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina

Decentralising the umrah booking and management process and allowing online travel agencies and the private sector to become part of it, will add hotel rooms in the holy cities.

Saudi Arabia’s rapid tourism growth will require accelerated investment in infrastructure.

“Customer service skills [including those that speak different languages] are also a challenge, but that can be easily rectified through training,” said el-Shafaki.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle is to overcome an unfavourable image in some western countries. That may take time, but Saudi strategists are confident in their capacity to transform perceptions.

Top five Saudi tourism projects

Red Sea Global  

This giga-project comprises the Amaala and Red Sea projects, and ranks as the world’s largest tourism development under construction, covering 28,000 sq km.

Amaala is a family wellness destination split across three sites.  Phase one completes in 2024.

The Red Sea Project will also complete then, and will include 16 hotels spread over four islands and two inland sites.  

Saudi tourismDiriyah Gate
Diriyah Gate is a heritage development

Diriyah Gate

This $50 billion heritage and tourism project, located northwest of Riyadh is a mixed-use cultural and lifestyle destination with luxury restaurants, hotels, museums and cultural attractions.

The centrepiece is the al-Turaif mudbrick city, a Unesco World Heritage site. 

Diriyah is targeting 30 million local and international visitors by 2030.

Qiddiya

Located south-west of Riyadh, Qiddiya is to be the kingdom’s future capital of entertainment, sport and culture.

It will feature 300 leisure and entertainment facilities, a theme park, waterpark, golf courses, cinemas, and a performing arts theatre.

It aims to attract 17 million visitors a year by 2030.

Trojan Saudi tourismNeom
Trojena, in the mountains near Neom, will include a ski resort

Trojena

The desert megacity, located in mountains in the Neom area, will host the 2029 Asian Winter Games.

Trojena will offer a ski village, a man-made freshwater lake, family and wellness resorts, a nature reserve, retail stores and restaurants, water sports and mountain biking activities.

Completion is due by 2026 and will attract 700,000 annual visitors by 2030.  

Al Ula

Located in the kingdom’s remote northwest, Al Ula features historical assets such as Mada’in Saleh, where ancient Nabatean ruins are situated.

A new masterplan will see it grow visitor numbers substantially in the coming years, with an ambition to bring in two million visitors annually by 2035, from 250,000 currently.

This will be achieved in part through an expansion of the region’s airport.

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