For most people when they think of their next holiday destination the unlikely destination of Saudi Arabia probably won’t enter their thoughts. With strict visa requirements and the fact the country doesn’t currently offer traditional tourist visas, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long remained off limits to tourism. This may all be about to change however as plans have been unveiled to begin issuing tourist KSA visas as part of the hugely ambitious plans outlined in the country’s Vision 2030 plans.
The Saudi 2030 plan is a remarkable economic blueprint that outlines plans for the country to free itself from it’s independence on oil exports. The oil and gas sector currently contributes around 50 percent of the country’s gross domestic product with tourism and travel accounting for only 2.5 percent GDP. Compared to other smaller countries in the Persian Gulf such as the UAE and Qatar this lags someway behind. For Saudi Arabia this translated to less than $9.3 billion in 2014. The country is backing up its ambitious plans with huge investment in the tourism sector with plans to grow the current investment figure of $8 billion to almost $46 billion by 2020.
The current Saudi tourism sector relies heavily on the regions importance in the Islamic faith. 18 million tourists visited the country in 2014 with the majority of those religious visitors or pilgrims. The Kingdom is home to two of the most important sites in the Islamic faith, Mecca and Medina. The Saudi 2030 Vision outlines plans for investment in museums, historical sites and large coastal areas. By diversifying the options for prospective tourists it is hoped that not only religious tourists will be attracted to the area.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the son of King Salam, is leading the ambitious 2030 vision plan. In an interview with Al-Arabiya (the Saudi owned pan-Arab news channel) he stated how the new investments help to create attractions of the “highest international standards.” Crucially however he pointed the move to reinvent the Saudi economy would “widely” open the door to tourists from around the world.
Prince Sultan bin Salman added to this point by explaining the country will not be “totally open for everybody to just show up and come in. It is open for people that are doing business, for people working in Saudi Arabia, investing in Saudi Arabia, and people who are visiting for special purposes. And now it will be open for tourism again on a selected basis.”
Currently the country does not offer a KSA tourist visa although a pilot scheme which welcomed 25,000 visitors annually was in place between 2006 and 2010. As yet the Saudi Vision 2030 plans do not outline the way in which the visa system will change to reflect the increased investment in tourism but with a vast number of historical sites, a stunning Red Sea coastline and beautiful natural landscapes it is hoped a diversified tourism sector will attract a wide range of visitors.
It is hoped that this investment will also have a positive effect on Saudi’s themselves. Current figures show that around 245,000 Saudis work in the tourism sector with the aim to boost this to 352,000 by 2020. Most of these workers are centred around the religious sites of Mecca and Medina but the Saudi 2030 vision plan sets out hopes to increase tourism outside of these cities.
The entire 2030 Vision plan is an ambitious and exciting time for the country with the tourism industry expected to be one of the sectors that undergoes the biggest transformation.