'Tourism is the new oil': How Saudi Arabia is targeting an influx of travellers

The kingdom now claims the title of the world’s fastest growing tourism destination

Saudi Arabia is the world's fastest growing tourism destination and there is a lot more to come said Fahd Hamidaddin, chief executive of Saudi Tourism Authority. Photo: Saudi Tourism
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In September 2019, Saudi Arabia opened its doors to wide-scale tourism for the first time.

Launching its first tourist visa, the kingdom began welcoming visitors from 49 countries around the globe and it wasn't long before travellers were flocking there to explore its ancient history and discover more about a destination that had been sealed off for decades.

But the first chapter of this story was short-lived as the Covid-19 pandemic hit six months later, halting most international travel.

Despite that, tourism within the country thrived and Saudi Arabia now claims the title of the world’s fastest growing tourism destination, according to data from the UN World Tourism Organisation.

Fahd Hamidaddin, chief executive of the Saudi Tourism Authority, told The National at Arabian Travel Market in Dubai: “During the pandemic, even the wealthiest — the yacht and private jet owners — had no option but to fly within Saudi. So they discovered the country by force, and now they're continuing to discover it by choice.”

And with pandemic restrictions now a thing of the past, Saudi Arabia is gearing up for its next chapter.

42,000 new hotel rooms in the pipeline

In 2022, more than 93.5 million tourists visited Saudi Arabia, 77 million of whom were domestic travellers and 16.5 million were international tourists.

The country has committed $550 billion to tourism development across the kingdom by 2030, the largest global investment in tourism by far. And there are 42,000 new hotel rooms in the pipeline, easily the most in the GCC region, says Hamidaddin.

This initial success has led the country’s leaders to reassess the original 100 million visitor target it set as part of the Saudi Vision 2030 programme and new targets are currently being agreed upon.

Despite the rapid development, there’s still a shortage of facilities to satisfy travel demand. “The main challenges today are a shortage of airlifts, accommodation and experiences,” says Hamidaddin.

Saudi Arabia’s home-grown version of Airbnb

One company aiming to help fill that gap is Gathern, currently the country’s best performing tourism company says the Saudi Tourism chief executive.

“Gathern is the alternative Airbnb, the Saudi version. It’s a home-sharing platform that started with a few hundred listings and I think today it has exceeded 20,000 across the country,” says Hamidaddin.

Listings include all types of accommodation from villas, farms and caravans to yachts and rustic chalets. There is also a wide variety of room rates on offer, catering towards different budgets — something that seems to be missing from many of the country’s tourism megaprojects.

From Banyan Tree AlUla to Six Senses Southern Dunes (launching as the first resort at The Red Sea destination in the coming months) or the Four Seasons heading to Neom’s Sinadalah Island, luxury accommodation seems to be the focus. However, it is a trend that the country's tourism authority are aware of.

“It’s important that we cater for all travellers, by social income class and by travel purpose. People that travel for wellness are very different than those that travel for adventure, culture and events. And so we need to make sure that our offering is looked at holistically,” says Hamidaddin.

In Riyadh — home to the towering Kingdom Centre and historic Masmak fort — there are plenty of hotel options to choose from, ranging from budget stays to luxury boutique hotels. But even here, there’s work to be done.

“Riyadh has so many hotels, many of which are on highways. But when I think of Dubai, the best performing hotels are not the ones on Sheikh Zayed Road, people don’t want to stay on a highway. I think what we want is to ensure that travellers can come and find a place to stay, and things to do that are connected and accessible,” says Hamidaddin.

Changing perceptions of a kingdom

Hamidaddin accepts there are other challenges facing Saudi Arabia’s tourism industry, including how the country is still perceived by some internationally.

“In every industry, in any market, when a new brand comes in, there are the early adopters, the followers, the laggers and there are the sceptics that will never try that brand, that will say it’s not for me, and that’s fine.”

“The best way to address the perception of Saudi Arabia is by having travellers come see it for themselves. And that has served us the best.

“The early adopters have been blown away, not just by the offering of the place, but mostly by the people. And I think the people are the most telling about what this country is, and how different from the perceptions and preconceptions that people had.”

Tourism is Saudi Arabia's new oil

Over the coming years, Saudi Arabia will aim to entice travellers with several new destinations and developments.

In Diriyah, the 300-year-old city and birthplace of Saudi Arabia, ancient Unesco-protected sites have reopened to visitors with plans for a boulevard consisting of an opera house, fashion houses, art galleries, cafes and more.

On the Red Sea coast, the site of some ambitious luxury tourism projects, a new airport and the first three hotels in a pipeline of 50 will open this year, offering travellers access to a cluster of unexplored islands and inland sites.

In futuristic Neom, Sindalah Island will open early next year with the launch of three properties from Marriott, including the first Autograph Collection Hotels property in the kingdom.

In the 1920s the world came to Saudi for oil, but in the 2020s, we're expecting the people of the world to come for tourism.
Fahd Hamidaddin

In 2026, Trojena at Neom will open in the kingdom's highest mountain range. This snow-capped mountain will be the first major outdoor skiing destination in the GCC, and host the2029 Asian Winter Games. It will also offer glamping and nature-laden stays at Collective Trojena, the region's first eco-glamp site.

A slew of events, such as electronic dance music festival MDLBeast Soundstorm, the F1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Riyadh Season and AlUla Skies hot-air balloon festival are also on the calendar.

Each of these developments and events are part of Saudi Arabia's mission to diversify away from oil, something that simply cannot be done without tourism.

“The WTTC [the World Travel and Tourism Council] said one of every five new jobs came from tourism in the last decade, and one of every four new jobs will come from the industry in the coming five to 10 years. While other industries lose jobs to robots, these human-led sectors continue to provide and tourism sits at the forefront for us,” says Hamidaddin.

“What we're doing, we are doing for our people, for our economy, and the world is going to reward us. In the 1920s the world came to Saudi for oil, but in the 2020s, we're expecting the people of the world to come for tourism. And that's why we say that tourism is the new oil.”

Updated: May 12, 2023, 6:01 PM