Saudi Arabia is investing heavily in ramping up facilities for tourists across the country, but has no immediate plans to open up completely to foreign travellers.
Speaking to reporters in Dubai, Prince Sultan bin Salman, president of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), said: “Saudi Arabia already has 10 million people living and working there and it is open a lot to business people in terms of business practices that includes tourism.
“But more importantly, we are really focusing on our huge local market.
“We don’t really have to rush and import tourists while our capacity is not there and our infrastructure for tourism is not fully there. We started very late in tourism and we are currently focusing on converting it from a sector to a whole industry.
“We have practically gone about 90 per cent of the way now in terms of laws, regulations, infrastructure and projects,” he added.
As a first step to increase tourism, Saudi Arabia will now allow visitors on the one-month long Umrah visa to also travel to other parts of the country, confirmed Prince Sultan.
“They will be allowed to travel with licensed tour operators on approved programmes checked for quality services,” he said.
The Kingdom saw a 14 per cent growth in tourism in 2012, according to the UNWTO World Tourism Barometer, the fifth best performer globally, with tourism now the country’s second largest industry to employ Saudi nationals. Sector revenues rose 10 per cent to reach SAR61.8 billion last year.
“We are pushing money into tourism destinations,” said Prince Sultan.
Saudi is hoping to see a six per cent rise in domestic tourism by 2020, and is expanding airport and hotel capacity to cater to increasing demand.
The country’s 27 airports currently serve 55 million passengers, and are expected to increase that number to 75 million by 2020, with total number of flights rising from 33 million to 59 million in the next eight years.
A total of 214 new hotels are planned to open in the next three years, adding 57,000 new rooms to the 225,000 existing ones. Total hotel investment by 2020 is estimated to hit SAR143.9 billion.
By 2020, the sector is estimated to employ 1.1 million people directly, and contribute to 3.5 per cent of the country’s total GDP.