– Josh Corder
Saudi Arabia’s tourism minister says the kingdom could count more than 100 million tourists in 2023 – the numbers show increased visits from international travelers, but that it still has work to do to become a competitive global destination.
Here is the tally shared by Tourism Minister Ahmed bin Aqeel Al Khateeb:
- Saudi Arabia saw 77 million domestic tourists and 27 million international tourists, totaling 104 million visits.
- 77 million is the same number of domestic Saudi tourists in 2022. The overall figure increased by 11 million international visitors.
- Al Khateeb highlighted a new strategy put in place by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to attract 150 million tourists by 2030, with 80 million domestic tourists and 70 million international tourists.
- Total spending reached SAR 100 billion ($26.67 billion) last year.
The Saudis do not say exactly ‘how’ a local tourist can be measured. The ministry’s website defines a domestic tourist as: “The activities of a resident visitor within the country of reference, either as part of an internal tourist trip or as part of an external tourist trip”.
Saudi Arabia’s mix of leisure and religious travel
The growth of leisure tourism is the main focus; diversifying the county from its historic religious tourism sector that benefits pilgrims and Umrah pilgrims.
For now, the leisure tourism sector Saudi is trying to build – be it through new hotels, festivals, sporting events and mega projects – has mainly attracted locals.
For Saudi locals, leisure travel has increased significantly. According to the ministry’s data, 45% of all domestic trips by locals in the first half of 2023 were for leisure purposes. In 2022, it was 40% and in 2021 it was 36% of all trips.
For international visitors, 20% visited the kingdom for leisure, while visiting friends and relatives accounted for 23% and religious tourism accounted for 45%. In 2022, 15% of travelers visited for vacation, while in 2021, it was 9%.
The country’s wave of new developers is looking for ways to appeal to the mass base of religious travelers whose journeys begin and end in holy cities.
John Pagano, CEO of Red Sea Global, sees an opportunity for his future projects to extend the stay of these pilgrims.
“Think about the size of that market, a billion and a half Muslims in the world,” Pagano told Skift in an interview last December.
“So if we can tap into that market and get them to take that once-in-a-lifetime trip where they do the religious part, which is hugely important, and then take a family vacation on something that’s quite affordable, I think it’s a very deep market for us. (Religious travelers) tend to spend more in the middle and lower end of the (travel) market.
Located closer to Jeddah, one of Pagano’s new projects may seek to attract the city’s many religious travelers. Jeddah is located approximately one hour from Mecca, one of the most important places in all of Islam.
Booking spending by domestic Saudi travelers increased by 10.8% last year, with the majority of consumers (75%) opting to book local destinations with low-cost carriers, data from travel company Almosafer, part of the Seera Group, showed.
“This shows that domestic travelers are spending more on expenses at the destination, including accommodation and activities while saving on their trips,” the travel firm said in a report.
The country has eased its entry requirements by implementing the eVisa program, which now includes 63 countries and special administrative regions, along with the GCC resident visa. Additionally, there is a free 96-hour stopover visa, which gives visitors a free one-night hotel stay if they book with the national carrier, Saudia. This visa ban allows travelers to explore Saudi Arabia and undertake Umrah.
Photo: AlUla, Saudi Arabia. Used for illustrative purposes.