Saudi Arabia now leads the Middle East in tourist numbers

The Kingdom has seen visitor numbers grow but its ambitions are much bigger and broader. Plans to open its doors and sites come with a massive $800bn investment set to boost the sector.

Saudi nature spots and oases are included in the sites set to be further developed for tourism.
Saudi nature spots and oases are included in the sites set to be further developed for tourism.

Saudi Arabia now leads the Middle East in tourist numbers

While hydrocarbons have long been a major source of income for Saudi Arabia, so too has pilgrimage, given that it is the birthplace and nerve centre of Islam.

Yet in recent years, the reasons to visit Saudi Arabia have grown beyond the religious, as increased visitor numbers reflect an improved tourism infrastructure.

Today, tourism is one of the vital pillars of the Saudi economy and a key strand to its economic diversification.

There were nearly 106 million visitors to historical, entertainment, and other tourist sites last year, according to government data, but a large number of them were Saudis.

The government hopes to increase the number of foreigners in the coming years.

A prominent member of the G20, Saudi Arabia was ranked by the World Tourism Organisation as the second fastest growing country in terms of tourist attraction.

It saw a 156% increase in tourist numbers in 2023 compared to 2019, the last full year before the pandemic, according to the industry body.

This growth is in-line with the expansion of tourism in the Middle East, which increased by 122% in 2023 compared to 2019, while tourism elsewhere in the world rose by 88%.

Yet for Saudi Arabia, a country more used to exporting tourists than importing them, there are specific reasons for the rising numbers.

A mainstay has been the visits of Muslims for the purpose of Hajj and Umrah, but other factors have caused a qualitative shift in recent years.

Opening new sites

For a start, the Saudi authorities have adopted a policy of cultural and economic openness, and as part of this they have identified several attractive and interesting sites across the country that are worthy of visits and exploration.

UNESCO has identified six sites of historical and heritage value, including sites mentioned in religious scriptures.

These include Madain Saleh and the Al-Turaif district in Diriyah, which was founded in the 15th century and represents Najdi architecture.

Also, there is the historic city of Jeddah, dating back to pre-Islamic times.

Rock art drawings scattered over the mountains of the Hail region have interested archaeologists, who believe they date back more than 12,000 years.

Saudi Arabia was ranked by the World Tourism Organisation as the second fastest growing country in terms of tourist attraction. 

Furthermore, lying in the eastern Arabian Peninsula, Al-Ahsa is the world's biggest oasis and among the most famous.

UNESCO describes it as "a serial property comprising gardens, canals, springs, wells, a drainage lake, historical buildings, urban fabric and archaeological sites".

The UN body says they "represent traces of continued human settlement in the Gulf region from the Neolithic to the present, as can be seen from remaining historic fortresses, mosques, wells, canals and other water management systems".

Site of three million palm trees today, it is connected to the countries of the ancient world such as the Levant, Pharaonic Egypt, and Mesopotamia.

Aching for antiquity

UNESCO also highlights the Al-Hima Wells in Najran, represented by a path stretching between six rock wells used by ancient trade caravans travelling north to replenish their water supplies en route.

The area includes 13 sites characterised by their drawings depicting pastoral and hunting scenes, including human figures.

Archaeologists like Egyptian Zahi Hawass write extensively about archaeological sites in the Arabian Peninsula, stressing that their historical significance is on a par with Pharaonic, Babylonian, Sumerian, or Phoenician antiquities.

Elephant Mountain in AlUla, one of the principal tourism development sites in Saudi Arabia.

Visiting antiquities is a major reason for tourism around the world and the Saudi government has opened the way for foreigners to come and explore these sites.

It plans to invest $800bn in tourism-related facilities and projects over the next ten years, aiming to attract 150 million tourists by 2030, with 70% coming from abroad.

These are distinguished and ambitious goals, so there is now a big push to attract, train, and retain those with the requisite skills and talent for success in the tourism sector.

Alongside this, there are big projects to enhance the provision of tourist infrastructure at sites around the country, including facilities, hotels, and resorts.

The NEOM project

One of the biggest urban and tourism development projects anywhere in the world is NEOM in the north-west of Saudi Arabia.

Covering 26,500 sq. km, it aims to establish an integrated city for residence, commerce, and tourism, attracting people from the worlds of business, culture, and entertainment.

NEOM is in the Tabuk region, close to Jordan and Egypt, so can integrate with the tourism and commercial activities in both countries.

The project, which includes an airport, will be easily accessible to visitors from European countries.

Its design uses modern technology and smart systems to facilitate the work and accommodation of workers and visitors.

Visiting antiquities is a major reason for tourism around the world and the Saudi government has opened the door for people to come and explore. 

The aim is to create a clean environment using modern transportation modes that do not contribute to air pollution.

NEOM will create thousands of jobs and is expected to attract up to five million tourists from around the world. It is a key part of the 'Vision 2030' adopted by the Kingdom.

This signifies its contribution to Saudi Arabia's aim of achieving economic diversification and providing promising investment opportunities.

The first phase of NEOM could be completed by next year and is expected to add around $100bn to the country's gross domestic product (GDP). The first visitors to NEOM attractions are expected later this year.

Religious tourism

It goes without saying that religious tourism represents a significant pillar when it comes to tourism in Saudi Arabia.

Both domestic and external visitors to Mecca and Medina are of great importance to the economies of both cities, spending their money on hotels and shopping.

Muslims performing evening prayers at the Grand Mosque during the holy month of Ramadan, in the holy city of Mecca on 31 March 2024.

The number of Umrah performers who came from abroad in 2023 was estimated at 13.55 million. Likewise, there were 850,000 Hajj pilgrims from 150 countries.

Visitor numbers to religious sites has increased following the construction of hotels and apartments dedicated to pilgrims and Umrah performers, which has boosted revenues from religious tourism.

Experts at the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah expect revenues from pilgrims to top 50bn Saudi Riyals ($13.3bn) in 2030.

Commercial services in the two cities are on course to improve their performance, leading to job opportunities in these areas.

Sports tourism

A key to increasing the number of visitors to the Kingdom is to foster further reasons to stay in the country, such that the visits of Umrah performers may be enhanced. Entertainment and sports therefore have a big role to play.

It is now understood that Saudi Arabia could become one of the most important tourist destinations in the Middle East and North Africa, where visitors spent around 103bn Riyals ($28bn) in the first nine months of last year.

Alongside plans to develop tourist attractions, landmarks, entertainment activities, festivals and conferences, sports development plans are a part of Vision 2030.

Al Nassr's Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates after a match at Al-Awwal Park in Riyadh. Sports stars are playing in Saudi Arabia as part of the Kingdom's Vision 2030.

Many sports clubs have been transferred to the ownership of the private sector and the sovereign fund, to improve management and performance.

There is now a concerted drive to attract the world's best players and coaches, to put Saudi Arabia firmly on the international sports map alongside famous sporting countries such as England, Spain, and Italy.

This is fully expected to contribute to increased tourist numbers, as sports fans fly in from around the globe to watch matches and competitions featuring the world's best.

Taken together, the Saudi Arabian approach to tourism is starting to pay dividends, but with such serious investment in the future, the sector is only set to expand.

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