Thanks to Hajj and Umrah, Saudi Arabia has been in the tourism business for over a thousand years. But the kingdom has big plans to develop its tourism sector to attract more foreign visitors and keep more Saudis holidaying at home.
As Muslim worshipers complete the second Hajj due to coronavirus restrictions, Saudi Arabia is pushing for plans to restart the kingdom’s nascent secular tourism sector as part of ongoing efforts to shift its economy away from fossil fuels .
Religious tourism has traditionally been one of the few ways visitors can enter the kingdom – home to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities.
This guardianship makes Saudi Arabia a destination for outsiders. Between Hajj, which takes place at specified times each year and is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, and Umrah, a pilgrimage to holy sites that can take place at any time, the kingdom hosted 9.5 million pilgrims in 2019.
But Riyadh plans to tap a tourist market beyond religious pilgrims to grow the economy beyond oil revenues as part of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) Vision 2030 blueprint.
In September 2019, Riyadh introduced a tourist e-visa aimed at attracting non-Muslim visitors. But it was barely launched when COVID-19 brought the global tourism industry to a halt last year.
The pandemic restrictions also hit Saudi’s established religious tourism industry hard.
Only 60,000 vaccinated Saudi citizens and residents were allowed on the pilgrimage this year, while the number of worshipers was limited to 1,000 in 2020.
The state reopened its borders in several countries for tourism on May 30, but has since been closed with new ones with the outbreak of the COVID-19 delta variant.
“Obviously, it was another phenomenal year. Business around the pilgrimage was brought to a halt with new adventure and cultural tourism sectors,” Jeddah-based tourism consultant Chris Rosenkrans told Al Jazeera.
For Jeddah-based tour guide Samir Komosani, it is difficult to see his country closed to any kind of international visitor.
“This vastly beautiful country has so much to offer visitors and I love sharing its hidden secrets,” he told Al Jazeera. “I think as COVID subsides we will see people from all over the world coming to Saudi Arabia.”
His optimism is shared by leaders in Riyadh, who expect tourism revenue to increase from 3 percent of the country’s total GDP to 10 percent by 2030.
Saudi Arabia aims to attract 100 million tourists a year by the end of the decade and increase the number of religious visitors from 17 million to 30 million by 2025.
To accommodate hopeful visitors, the government is expanding tourism infrastructure and seeking to make the historically conservative country a more open and diverse destination for Western visitors and religious tourists.
In July, MBS announced plans to build a new national airline carrier and has committed to investing more than $147 billion in transportation infrastructure over the next nine years. Bloomberg News, citing people familiar with the matter, reported that the state is also considering building a new airport in Riyadh.
“That [the new airline announcement] is really the pinnacle of tourism and reflects their intentions,” Adel Hamaizia, a Gulf scholar at Chatham House, told Al Jazeera. “The big question is ‘whether projects like Saudi airline can attract enough passengers to make it viable’. could?'”
The scale of Saudi Arabia’s ambitions can be seen in its megaprojects. The Red Sea Development Company – a firm owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund – forms 50 hotels and 1,300 residential buildings along the country’s Red Sea coast as part of an eco-friendly coral reef resort manufacturing units.
PIF, tasked with deploying the country’s oil wealth into more sustainable industries, is also investing in 334km of recreational capital and the $500bn zero-carbon desert megacity NEOM, the focus of MBS’s economic transformation plans .
But Saudi Arabia is facing stiff competition from its neighbours. Across the Red Sea lies Egypt, with the coast dotted with large, established beach resorts, such as Sharm el-Sheikh. They have been operating for decades and have the advantage of low prices, not to mention relaxed social codes and alcohol sales.
To the north, Jordan has also become a major tourist hub attracting visitors to sites such as Petra and Wadi Rum, while the United Arab Emirates is doubling down on the hospitality sector as part of efforts to shift its economy away from fossil fuels.
But Saudi Arabia has something its neighbors don’t: two of Islam’s holiest shrines.
“We have been in the travel business for over a thousand years,” Komosani explains, discussing the state chant as the cradle of Islam.
Badr al-Saif, a Gulf scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said the state is determined to attract more Western and Muslim tourists alike, but the detention of holy sites gives them a clear advantage over the latter.
“By default, pilgrims become tourists and this is not the case in any other country,” he said. “The Saudis want them to go to Mecca and Medina, but why not give them the option of going elsewhere after that?”
Religious tourists may also feel more comfortable in a resort or town where alcohol is not served and social codes, although more relaxed in recent years, are still measured.
The kingdom’s efforts to develop its tourism sector could also reap dividends closer to home if they manage to keep Saudi citizens – and their holiday expenses – at home.
Saudis spent $22bn traveling abroad in 2019. In a country where more than half the population is under the age of 30, many citizens move abroad in search of entertainment options.
Liberal social reform led by MBS, whether allowing music festivals or mixing men and women in public places, is as much about modernizing society as it is about getting young Saudis to vacation in their home country. And while the coronavirus pandemic limited the number of Haj pilgrims for a second year, it bolstered the government’s efforts to boost domestic tourism.
“Tourism is not only dependent on people from outside,” Komosani said. “Saudi is the most wanted tourist in the world.”
He added that attracting domestic tourists and providing more options for religious pilgrims may be a more achievable goal in the short term than attracting large numbers of visitors from the West.
“It’s not going to be Dubai overnight,” Rosenkrans said.
But Komosani is confident that global tourists will come. And when they do, he is ready to show them all that his country has to offer.
“Why do you think we have this new airline?” he asks aloud. “Because we believe there will be demand.”