Comment: Saudi Arabia’s international tourism market

Comment: Saudi Arabia’s international tourism market
Richie Santosdiaz
Published: 7 January 2020 - 2:45 p.m.
When the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia first discovered oil last century it transformed the economy and boosted economic growth and development. Today, as part of its national transformation strategy, Saudi Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia is looking to diversify and rely less on oil and tourism plays a big part of that.

The Kingdom is already one of the world’s major destinations for foreigners with little promotion nor, until recently, even being open to tourists. In 2017, Saudi Arabia received over 16 million inbound visitors from around the world, growing at a CAGR of 10% since 2010; religious tourism constituted 45% of the total number of inbound trips.

Since launching the new e-visa, where 49 countries (including the USA, Canada, E.U., Japan and China) can now apply for visas online as tourists, 24,000 tourists entered the Kingdom the first ten days – with China topping the list followed by the UK and USA. There is an aim to target 100 million tourist in Saudi Arabia by 2030 as part of Saudi Vision 2030.

The Kingdom has an array of rich history and natural beauty. For instance, Saudi Arabia is home to five UNESCO World Heritage Sites. One of those sites is Historic Jeddah, which was founded around the seventh century in an area in Jeddah known as Al-Balad. The Kingdom is also known for its vast diverse landscape – from of course the desert to mountains to milder temperate landscapes in the south – even being home to coral reefs mainly along the Red Sea. From being the birthplace of Islam to its natural beauty and even historic trading sites and artefacts, there is much for tourists and clearly there is interest from first site.

Seven new airports are being built in Saudi Arabia, and its two largest are being expanded – Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport (aiming to host 80 million passengers by 2035) and Riyadh’s King Khaled International Airport (aiming to accommodate 25 million passengers). There is plenty of construction happening in the wider hospitality sector that is catering to the future requirements of both tourists and locals – from new hotels and restaurants across the Kingdom.

Other projects that will cater to the country’s growing tourism industry include al-Qiddiya, an economic development focused around cultural, entertainment and sporting activities that will include a Six Flags Theme park, as well as the Red Sea Project, a project built around a lagoon of 50 untouched islands. In addition, there is also NEOM, the world’s first private zone spanning not only Saudi Arabia but Egypt and Jordan with an area of over 26,500 square km and will be independent from the country’s existing governmental framework.

It is worth noting the country’s population is over 33 million people and within its own borders has the potential to propel domestic tourism, in addition to international tourism.

By having Saudi Arabia open its doors to the world, the Kingdom and showcase both its rich history and landscape, as well as its future aspirations with its large-scale economic development projects. It is already accustomed to international visitors, but, for the first time has the opportunity to showcase its past, present and future to the rest of the world.


Richie Santosdiaz is a Dubai-based economic development expert and is currently head of strategy for boutique consulting firm Rise Group ME.

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