Saudi Arabia has set its sights on becoming a major player in the global tourism industry over the next ten years. And like most initiatives coming from the Kingdom, the world should take notice. With a commitment to diversifying its economy, the country has undertaken ambitious projects and initiatives to transform its tourism sector.
So in this article, we will explore what we can expect from Saudi Arabia’s tourism sector in the next decade, including key projects, expected visitor numbers, economic impact, the source of tourists, potential transformations, and the cultural richness that awaits travellers.
Where will tourists visit?
One of the most anticipated projects is NEOM, a futuristic city located in the northwestern region of the country, covering an area of approximately 10,200 square miles. Accessible to 40% of the world in less than a four hour flight, NEOM aims to be a hub for innovation and tourism, with plans for high-tech attractions, sustainable living, and unique experiences. Tourists can expect to explore cutting-edge attractions in NEOM, making it a must-visit destination in the coming years – with most of NEOM scheduled to be open by the end of the decade. From AI-driven cities to eco-friendly resorts to 450km of beautiful coastline boasting coral reefs and islands, NEOM is set to redefine the way tourists experience Saudi Arabia.
Another significant project is the Red Sea Development, a collection of luxury resorts and pristine beaches along the Red Sea coast. Announced six years ago, it already has three hotels complete with the first phase of an international airport due to open later this year. The organisation behind it, Red Sea Global, is owned by the Public Investment fund of Saudi Arabia. Its stated goal is to pioneer a novel approach to development, prioritising both the welfare of individuals and the environment, harnessing cutting-edge ideas and technologies to improve the quality of life for their clients, local communities, and the natural world. This development will provide tourists with world-class hospitality, eco-friendly experiences, and access to vibrant marine life, coral reefs, and archaeological sites.
For investors and entrepreneurs alike, these major projects offer significant opportunities to those who want to be part of the next generation of city infrastructure.
A look back in time – cultural sites
While these new developments are impressive, Saudi Arabia’s rich historical and cultural sites will continue to attract history enthusiasts and culture seekers alike. The restoration and promotion of these heritage sites will preserve the country’s history while also offering unique experiences for tourists.
The UNESCO-listed site Diriyah is not only a historical gem but also a vibrant cultural hub. Visitors can wander through its ancient streets, explore museums, and witness traditional performances, gaining a deeper understanding of Saudi Arabia’s roots. Historical Diriyah offers an immersive journey through interconnected historic neighbourhoods and their remnants. It gives visitors the chance to explore the entrances of palatial structures that mark the commencement of an era deeply engraved in the annals of history.
It’s worth noting that UNESCO has inscribed seven properties in Saudi Arabia onto the World Heritage list – six cultural and one natural. While these sites are well-known to the more intrepid traveller, the overall boost to the country’s tourism ecosystem will likely increase visitor numbers to these historical sites – as well as the futuristic projects such as NEOM.
Expected visitor numbers and economic impact
In 2021, there were approximately seven million international tourists visiting Saudi Arabia, but the goal is to attract 100 million tourists by 2030 – a number in-line with the kind of tourist numbers you might associate with France. (It’s already been reported that Saudi Arabia hopes to increase this goal to 150 million.) With this hoped-for increase would be a much larger GDP contribution (up to 10%) from the tourist sector as outlined in the country’s Vision 2030 plan.
The economic impact of a tourism boom will be far-reaching. It will create job opportunities, stimulate local businesses, offer opportunities for startups, attract further investments from around the world. It will impact hospitality, transportation, retail and many other sectors. The government’s investments in tourism infrastructure and attractions are designed to generate substantial returns and as the tourism sector flourishes, the Saudi economy will diversify further, reducing its dependency on oil revenues and enhancing its resilience in the global market.
Where will the tourists come from?
Saudi Arabia’s strategic location at the crossroads of Europe, Asia, and Africa positions it well to attract tourists from diverse regions. While traditionally a destination for business and religious pilgrimage, the Kingdom is now actively targeting leisure travellers. Tourists are expected to come from countries around the world, with a particular focus on neighbouring GCC countries. With its rapidly growing middle class and increasing disposable income, Asia presents a massive opportunity for Saudi Arabia. Countries like China and India have emerged as key markets for the country’s tourism sector, with Chinese tourists in particular likely to make up a significant portion of visitors.
The easing of visa restrictions and the introduction of the electronic visa system have already made it far easier for tourists to visit Saudi Arabia. Even a quick glance at YouTube shows the number of travel influencers visiting the Kingdom has increased enormously and signals the country’s move into the spotlight when it comes to tourism.
Potential transformations as tourism grows
As Saudi Arabia opens up to the world, it is likely to undergo several transformations. The influx of tourists will foster cultural exchange and promote a more open and cosmopolitan society. This transformation is not limited to the tourist experience but extends to various aspects of Saudi life.
1. Cultural exchange: With an influx of international visitors, Saudi Arabia will benefit from knowledge sharing and cross-cultural exchange to further position it as a major player on the world stage.
2. Education and skill development: The growth of the hospitality and tourism industry will lead to an increasingly skilled workforce. Saudi Arabia will invest in education and training programs to meet the demands of the tourism sector. This will result in a more educated and dynamic workforce, driving economic growth in other sectors as well.
3. Women’s participation: Saudi Arabia has taken significant steps in recent years to empower women in various fields, including tourism. Women’s participation in the workforce, especially in the tourism and hospitality sectors, is expected to increase, promoting gender equality and economic development.
4. Preservation of heritage: The promotion of historical and cultural sites will not only attract tourists but also preserve Saudi Arabia’s rich heritage. The government’s commitment to restoring and conserving these sites will ensure their longevity for generations to come.
5. Infrastructure development: To accommodate the influx of tourists, Saudi Arabia will continue to invest in infrastructure, including transportation, hotels, and entertainment facilities. This will enhance the quality of life for both residents and visitors.
6. Sustainable tourism: Saudi Arabia is committed to sustainable tourism practices, focusing on preserving its natural resources and protecting the environment. This commitment will set an example for sustainable tourism in the region and worldwide.
7. Economic diversification: The tourism sector’s growth aligns with Saudi Arabia’s broader economic diversification goals. By reducing its reliance on oil revenues and expanding into tourism, the Kingdom is enhancing its economic resilience.
Saudi Arabia’s tourism sector is on a transformative journey over the next decade. With visionary projects, ambitious targets, and a commitment to sustainable tourism, the Kingdom is poised to become a global tourism destination. The economic impact, influx of tourists, and potential societal changes are all exciting prospects for Saudi Arabia’s future.