Tourist arrivals in Saudi Arabia exceeded pre-pandemic levels in 2023, UN report says

Middle East is the only region that recorded tourism growth over 2019 levels

Tourists in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia. The kingdom recorded a 156 per cent increase in tourist arrivals last year compared with 2019, according to a UN World Tourism Organisation report. PA
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Saudi Arabia recorded a 156 per cent increase in tourist arrivals last year compared with 2019 amid the recovery of the tourism sector following the pandemic, according to Saudi state news agency SPA, which quoted a World Tourism Organisation report.

The Middle East is the only region that achieved tourism growth over pre-pandemic levels, receiving 122 per cent more tourists last year than in 2019, the report from the UN agency said.

“The global rate of tourism recovery in 2023 stood at 88 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, registering an estimated 1.3 billion arrivals,” the report said.

“International tourism revenue reached $1.3 trillion, approaching 93 per cent of the $1.5 trillion achieved in 2019.”

Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter, is transforming its economy under its Vision 2030 diversification agenda as it aims to reduce its dependence on oil, boost domestic industries and support jobs growth.

It is developing several large projects in line with this strategy, including Qiddiya, as well as Neom, a $500 billion futuristic city, the Red Sea Project and the Diriyah Gate heritage development.

Midway through the Vision 2030 implementation, “strong performance has been achieved against many of the economic goals”, a report by consultancy PwC in October found.

Saudi Arabia’s mega projects “have made significant progress in the last few years, moving from the conceptual phase to construction”, the report said.

The kingdom was fifth in a global ranking of international arrivals in 2023, returning to pre-Covid levels for inbound visitors and buoyed by Hajj pilgrims, investment in marketing the country as a tourism destination and efforts to diversify its economy, the Global Travel Trends report by travel analysis company ForwardKeys showed.

The kingdom followed the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico and Greece in the top five, which was dominated by “sun and beach” destinations.

The UN agency estimated the direct contribution of the global tourism sector to gross domestic product last year at 3 per cent to reach $3.3 trillion, the SPA reported.

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The Madrid-based company estimated the global tourism industry to fully recover from the pandemic during 2024 and to further grow by 2 per cent compared with 2019.

Saudi Arabia topped G20 countries for number of arriving tourists last year, and ranked second among the fastest-growing tourist destinations in the world in the first three quarters of last year, according to SPA.

Various tourist destinations in the kingdom recorded a significant increase in the number of visitors, both domestic and foreign last year, and registered a record in spending by overseas visitors, according to data issued by the Central Bank of Saudi Arabia.

Tourism revenue in Saudi Arabia was worth more than 100 billion Saudi riyals ($26.7 billion) for the first three quarters of 2023, a 72 per cent annual increase, the central bank data showed.

Updated: January 20, 2024, 1:16 PM