In late September this year, Saudi Arabia announced that it would open the country up to tourists, providing visas and e-visas to 49 nationalities in an event titled ‘Open hearts, open doors’.
Opening Saudi to tourism is a key milestone in the implementation of Vision 2030, which seeks to diversify the country's economy and reduce its dependence on oil.
“We've looked at all travel purposes around the world in terms of tourism and we've seen that 50 per cent of all travel falls into three traveller categories. One is culture and heritage, two is nature and adventure, and the third is sun and sea. We're going after these three travel purposes,” Fahd Hamidaddin, chief of investment, strategy and tourism marketing, Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, tells TTN, on the side lines of the recently concluded World Travel Market in London.
“The first two will make our first phase, which started from September when we opened doors and hearts to the world and phase two starts in 2022 – that's where we add the third travel purpose – the sun and sea – when the giga project on the Red Sea would open in a scalable fashion.”
For the first phase Saudi Arabia aims to attract the explorers, who are interested in culture and heritage and in nature and adventure. The country offers five Unesco World Heritage Sites, a vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty.
“From a source market point of view, we're no different from any other destination around the world. China is an important source market, but so are the US, Russia is on the rise, the Western countries.”
Time is moving faster in Saudi Arabia than it does in the rest of the world. It’s almost as if it is making up for lost time; a really long time means barely a few weeks, and now often means yesterday
Since the launch of the visas on September 27, over 91,000 visas had already been issued as of November 5, Hamidaddin tells us.
Of these visas, the maximum number of visitors are from China, number two is UK, number three is US, four is Canada, explains Hamidaddin. Although there are a lot of young people too, the majority are in the age group of 40 and 42, which is a good age range “because these are the established ones who can spend. The best part is that 48 per cent of them are women. So, all these perceptions about how friendly the country is for women is not a barrier at all. We're committed to making the experience friendly and welcoming for all."
“I think Saudi Arabia attracting world travellers spells success for the whole region. In the retail business, for instance, the more designers join a shopping strip, the better it is for all the stores. The same model applies to tourism as well – we are adding another magnet to attract people to the Middle East.
“We're already looking at joint programmes; we are collaborating with the UAE on our first joint visa. It's not yet out, but we're working on it. There will also be commercial collaborations. People who are seeking culture, would probably want to go to the pyramids, Petra and then to Al Ula.
“We're setting up a gathering for DMCs. There aren't many DMCs in Saudi Arabia at the moment, but we are seeing a great interest and a rise on that front. International DMCs want a piece of the pie, in fact, Arabian Adventures just got its licence a few weeks ago and Seera Group set up a DMC called Discover Saudi, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Our job is to enable them and make their experience easy to set up here.”
"We are naturally facing challenges but nothing out of the ordinary and nothing severe", Hamidaddin tells our readers. “It is fixing the business model at a speed that the leadership is expecting. It's attracting the talent, not just the management, but also the technical expertise.
“We're coming late in the game and we have to leapfrog if we really want to make it to the top five destinations in the world by 2030.
“To make these leap frogs, we need to not look at the standard benchmarking and best practices and copy. We need to do that on the fundamentals, but for driving the future we need to invite the blue ocean thinkers, the sector disruptors and technology leaders, who will unveil opportunities that many have not thought of.
“Many large destinations are stuck within the limitations of the sector and norms. We don't have any norms, we are in the process of shaping them. There are obvious challenges that have all mature destinations have faced and we are learning from them – we don't want to repeat those mistakes, especially on the infrastructure and sustainability front. We want to learn from where the damage has happened to nature, where the damage has happened in making urban cities and we make sure we don't repeat those.”
Saudi Arabia will soon start promoting tourism in the regional markets as well. With visas and DMCs making it easy for travellers to visit the country, even cost becomes an important concern. “A second Umrah visit would typically cost SAR2,000 just to get a visa. Today it is $80 for one year, multiple for all the neighbouring countries. So, we are hitting both attractiveness and competitiveness, which is ease and cost, so we're definitely going to get a rising influx of regional tourists.
It may be a matter of weeks before the implementation of the new rule, which allows holders of US, UK or Schengen visas around the world to enter Saudi Arabia without additional pre-approval.
Time is moving faster in Saudi Arabia than it does in the rest of the world. It’s almost as if it is making up for lost time; a really long time means barely a few weeks, and now often means yesterday. “It's more so on the government side. Business is still as usual. It's government that's going at a crazy pace, which, which is quite the contrary to what happens in so many other countries. All thanks to the crown prince,” says Hamidaddin.
Saudi Arabia expects to increase international and domestic visits to 100 million a year by 2030, attracting significant foreign and domestic investment and creating a million jobs. By 2030, the aim is for tourism to contribute up to 10 per cent towards the Saudi GDP, compared to just 3 per cent today.
Billions of dollars are being spent to improve infrastructure and develop heritage, cultural and entertainment sites.
Saudi's airport capacity is expected to increase by 150 million passengers per annum and an additional 500,000 hotel key cards will be needed across the country over the coming decade.
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