Saudi Arabia plans to become the world’s fastest-growing tourism market:
From the mountains of Abha to the beaches of the Red Sea, to the shifting sands of the Empty Quarter, The Kingdom’s attractions aim to welcome 100 million people a year by 2030.
A million jobs will be generated in the sector, making tourism a key pillar of Vision 2030, the government’s wide-ranging program to overhaul its economy.
To achieve these ambitious targets, the tourism sector will require investments in everything from food and beverage outlets to cinemas and the development of luxury beach resorts, to preparing its magnificent ancient heritage sites to accommodate tour groups on a daily basis. International investors are responding enthusiastically: Agreements worth some 100 billion riyals ($26 billion) were signed in Riyadh on September 27—World Tourism Daybetween the General Investment Authority (SAGIA), the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) and titans of the hospitality and leisure industry including Triple Five, the UAE’s Majid Al Futtaim Group and SoftBank-backed Indian lodgings startup OYO Hotels and Homes, also known as OYO Rooms.
“Visitors will be surprised and delighted by the treasures we have to share—five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty. To visitors we say: Be among the first to discover and explore the treasures of Arabia. To investors we say: Become part of the fastest-growing tourism sector on Earth.”
The Kingdom has also introduced a new visa program for tourists from across the world to make it quick and easy to visit the Kingdom. Visitors from 49 countries including the USA, Britain and China are now able to get e-visas and visas on arrival, while tourists from elsewhere can apply at their national Saudi consulate.
“I’ve been visiting the kingdom for 30 years, and one of the secrets is just how spectacularly beautiful this country is, diverse and welcoming.” says Gerard “Jerry” Inzerillo, CEO of the Ad-Diriyah Gate Development Authority. “So, from a tourism point of view, and opening up the Kingdom now to 49 countries, people will come and see some of the most varied, breathtaking topography in the world and get one of the warmest welcomes.”
The projects on offer are vast, including the Qiddiya entertainment city, which plans to contain more than 300 attractions, and luxury destinations built on the Red Sea, as well as infrastructure in the Kingdom’s biggest cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah. Majid Al Futtaim, among the companies that have made investment commitments, has signed an MOU worth 20 billion riyals for a mixed-use shopping and entertainment destination, which will create 12,000 jobs and feature the region’s largest indoor ski slope and snow park. In addition, OYO Rooms has announced its intent to purchase 10 or more upper-budget luxury hotel properties across the country in an agreement worth 4 billion riyals.
“Saudi Arabia is one of the most attractive investment destinations now,” says Alain Bejjani, CEO of Majid Al Futtaim Group. “One, the Saudi population and the vast majority of youth have been for a long time longing for a modern lifestyle, and this is very attractive for companies and organizations across the globe. Two, we are seeing a vision come to life: When we compare the aspirations of Vision 2030, and we look at the reality today, Saudi Arabia is a totally different country. It’s an open country, it’s walking the talk on tolerance, it’s opening up for the private sector to come and invest. And third are the social reforms. The bold steps taken to lift restrictions around many aspects of life are extremely encouraging and impressive.”
Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, is already among the top 20 most visited countries in the world. The Kingdom currently attracts 16 million visitors a year, many of whom are pilgrims who flock to Islam’s holy sites. The Saudis themselves are the biggest spenders globally on tourism, with $20 billion spent annually on trips.
With better and more varied tourism facilities, it is hoped that a large chunk of that $20 billion will be spent by Saudis in their home country. Tourism is expected to play a critical role in the Kingdom’s plan to diversify its economy, with the industry’s contribution to GDP forecast to rise to 10% by 2030, from 3% today.
“We are in the service industry, and the service industry requires young people,” says Fettah Tamince, Chairman and Founder of Rixos Hotels, whose FTG Development group will build a hotel, water park and retail development in Qiddiya. “Saudi has a big population, there are a lot of young people. We are all discovering and witnessing how excited they are to be part of tourism, and this is as important as Saudi Arabia’s money, heritage and culture.”