Saudi Arabia’s latest visa scheme, which allows pilgrims to tour the Kingdom with a month’s extension on their Umrah visas will launch soon, an official from Saudi Tourism and Antiquities Committee (SCTA) said.
The Extended Umrah Tourism Programme, which was announced last year, has not been activated till date but is expected to launch in a month’s time, SCTA’s vice president of marketing and programmes Hamad Al Sheikh told Gulf Business.
“There is a lot of demand in the industry but we do not have enough tour operators to handle the load,” he said, citing it as one of the reasons for the delay in activating the Umrah visa extension for visitors.
He added that tourism authorities are building up capacity and the number of tour operators before Saudi allows more visitors.
The Kingdom, which remain closed to foreign tourists, is looking to fuel its tourism industry by boosting domestic tourism and by tapping into large groves of religious tourists that flock to holy sites across the country.
Almost 17 million tourists visited Saudi Arabia in 2013, out of which 6.9 million were religious tourists, official estimates show. Domestic tourist numbers reached 23 million last year while the country received around 1.3 million business visitors.
Saudi Arabia’s tourism sector is also attracting large number of investments from both the public and private sector owing to its potential.
“It was estimated that in 2013 the investment in tourism was more than SAR90 billion,” said Al Sheikh.
He added that the government is investing heavily in infrastructure, especially airports, which in turn is expected to impact tourism positively.
The Kingdom has announced plans to expand five of its domestic airports to raise capacity and has also opened up its domestic aviation sector to more airlines.
The government’s efforts to spike tourism have also fuelled the growth of hotels across the Kingdom.
The country had a total of 1,251 hotels and 2,582 furnished apartments as of 2013, but a number of international hoteliers have also entered the market.
Kempinski is planning two major hotels in Saudi Arabia with its first project to open in Riyadh during the first half of this year followed by another hotel in the city of Al Khobar, due to open later this year.
“There is a huge demand for hotels in Saudi Arabia and the general tourism law will improve confidence among foreign investors since it will give the feeling that the competition is more regulated. But the focus is on improving the quality of hotels in the country,” said Al Sheikh.
Saudi Arabia’s tourism sector provided around 751,000 jobs in 2013 and is forecast to provide around 1.7 million jobs by 2020, according to Prince Sultan bin Salman, SCTA president.
Tourism added around SAR75 billion to Saudi’s national economy by the end of 2013, he said. The industry currently contributes to around 2.6 per cent of the Kingdom’s economy.