Saudi Arabia’s New Tourism Frontier Explained

An opaque kingdom wants to become transparent. Saudi Arabia is both reviled and revered — hated by many for checking all the boxes on human rights abuses and worshipped by Muslims as custodian of their holiest places.

The opening of a new destination is almost always greeted as a triumph. Not this one, where there’s been an outpouring of skepticism and scorn over the duality of its aims.

Scoffers see that, beneath the goals of reducing oil dependence and mirroring neighboring Dubai as a tourism hub, lurk motives such as ridding the ghost of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi that still haunts after a year and presenting a more benign image of itself to the world. Most recent measures include allowing unmarried foreign couples to rent hotel rooms and loosening strict dress code for female travelers.

In business, however, the practicalities of learning about opportunities in a new frontier duck uncomfortable concerns.

Some 400 government and business leaders, including 50 members of the World Travel & Tourism Council, attended a glitzy event marking “Saudi Open Hearts Open Doors” on September 27 in Diriyah, a town on the outskirts of the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Hosted by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, the invitation included a three-day bespoke tour of the kingdom designed to showcase hidden attractions and investment potential to about 45 VIPs, half of them World Travel & Tourism Council members including Carnival Corp., VFS Global, and Panorama Group Indonesia.

Collaborations have been sealed and, over time, more are expected to be inked. Oyo Hotels & Homes, funded by Saudi’s sovereign fund, Public Investment Fund, and SoftBank Vision Fund, unsurprisingly stepped up plans in the kingdom. On September 27, it signed an agreement to invest $1.1 billion (SAR4 billion) to build luxury and midscale hotels across the kingdom, its region’s head for Saudi Arabia, Manu Midha, told Skift.

Since its entry in February, Oyo has flagged 130 hotels with 6,500 rooms in 14 cities in Saudi Arabia, but these are largely budget accommodations, not luxury. It will also set up two Oyo Skills Institutes, in Riyadh and Jeddah, to train Saudi nationals in hotel management.

The World Travel & Tourism Council signed a partnership with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage on September 27 to “harness the experience and richness of our membership in supporting Saudi Arabia’s goal to be a top-five destination in the world with 100 million international and domestic visitors by 2030,” said the council’s executive director for business development Asia-Pacific, Middle East/Africa, Nigel David.

New E-Visas Explained

At the heart of the opening of Saudi Arabia to the world is a new tourist visa. Until September 28, there was no such thing as a tourist visa, only visas for pilgrimage (i.e., Hajj and Umrah), business, and commercial purposes.

This historic change enables non-Muslims to visit Saudi Arabia, save for the two holy cities Mecca and Medina, as tourists.

Moreover, Muslims can now use the tourist visa for their Umrah, which means they too are able to go beyond Mecca and Medina to anywhere in the kingdom after their Umrah. Tour operators handling the Muslim market interviewed by Skift see a huge upside from this development (see Prospects Explained).

At present, citizens of 49 countries can apply for the tourist visa online.

That does not mean citizens who are not from those countries on the list can’t apply for a tourist visa. Applications can be done, for instance, through VFS Tasheel, the Dubai-based visa outsourcing company that is fully owned by VFS Global, which is present in 30 countries. In countries where VFS Tasheel is not present, travelers could go to the Saudi embassy or consulate.

VFS Global’s Chief Communications Officer Peter Brun told Skift that the first tourist visas have already been processed in the last few days. But he said it’s too soon to gauge visitor interest and from which markets.

“From the 30 countries VFS Tasheel is present, the largest source countries where travelers apply for visas [primarily pilgrim visas] to Saudi Arabia are Indonesia, Algeria, Pakistan, Egypt, UAE, Jordan, Bahrain, the Philippines, and Nigeria. But it is expected that from these countries a lot of tourists will also visit the kingdom in future,” said Brun.

According to the official Saudi Arabia Events, tourists are able to visit the kingdom during the Hajj season, except to Mecca and Medina.

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