Saudi Arabian, already seeing millions of Muslim pilgrims flock to its kingdom each year, is now planning to attract more conventional tourists in the near future. Prince Sultan bin Salman, head of the Saudi tourism and national heritage commission, said that Saudi Arabia plans to issue its first ever tourist visas in 2018.
In an interview with CNNMoney’s Richard Quest, the Prince stated that Saudi Arabia plans on targeting “people who want to literally experience this country.” The Prince also said that the country has also identified Saudi tourists, who are seeping outside the country, as their primary targets.
Saudi visas are currently restricted only to people traveling for work or to visit one of Saudi Arabia’s holy sites. According to a report made by the Ministry of Haj and Umrah of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, over 23 million pilgrims visited the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 2016 alone, with more than 8 million of them being tourists.
Attracting tourists is a crucial part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan, in which he seeks to decrease the kingdom’s dependence on oil. According to CNN, Saudi Arabia aims to increase its tourist visits to 30 million a year by 2030 and wants its annual tourism spending to hit the $47 billion mark by 2020.
During an interview with CNNMoney, Prince Sultan bin Salman said that Saudi Arabia already hosts some of the best infrastructures for transportation and the hospitality industry and that it is prepared for a significantly increased influx of tourists.
However, despite the Prince’s claims that the country is fully prepared for a new age in its tourism industry, several highly ambitious projects have been announced in the past few months.
The first in line was the plan to build holiday resorts on about 100 miles of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coastline, as well as to open a Six Flags theme park south-west of the capital Riyadh by 2022.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman also announced plans to build a $500 billion metropolis that will spread across three countries, making the country a leader in building sustainable tech-hub cities.
A country with a notoriously barren entertainment landscape, Saudi Arabia has seen more than a million of its citizens visit Dubai this year alone. Seeing the amount of money being spent by tourists in neighboring countries, broadening its entertainment content to appease to its natives seems like a logical way to decrease the country’s reliance on oil.
Saudi kingdom’s tourism potential might be out-shined by its unstable security situation
In spite of the efforts Saudi officials are putting into promoting its tourism industry, security still remains one of the biggest challenges the kingdom faces.
The U.S. State Department issued a new travel warning Tuesday, warning American citizens “to carefully consider the risks of travel to Saudi Arabia.” CNN also reported the State Department cited terrorist groups, most notably ISIS, as well as frequent missile attacks from Yemeni rebels on Saudi civilians as the main threats to the safety of people visiting Saudi Arabia.
“Terrorist threats persist throughout Saudi Arabia, including in major cities such as Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dhahran, and attacks can occur without warning anywhere in the country,” the State Department said.
Another thing that contributes to the aversion foreigners hold against Saudi Arabia are the strict Islamic rules regarding gender segregation and dress codes. Uncertainty on how to act while visiting the kingdom’s holy sites vastly contributes to both Europeans and Americans feeling unwelcome.
The lack of entertainment attractions also doesn’t help Saudi Arabia appeal to tourists. With its first-ever public concert held last year and only being reserved for men, visitors rarely come to the kingdom for fun.
However, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s modernization efforts might remove some of the stigma associated with traveling to Saudi Arabia. Allowing women to drive and attend sporting venues have already put the kingdom on a path to become a more moderate society.
Nikola Kosutic, a senior research manager at Euromonitor, said that if Saudi Arabia manages to craft smart promotional campaigns addressing some of the perceived security issues, it could, in theory, tap into a vast regional travel market as well as capture some of the European travelers.
We are yet to see how much impact on its foreign visitors the new tourist visas will have. However, Saudi’s domestic tourism industry is bound to see a significant increase in the following months, potentially making way for tourists from other Arab nations to put Saudi Arabia on their vacation list.