Saudi Arabia wants to be the top global destination for Muslim tourists by the end of the decade according to a top official.
In a report published by Arab News, It comes amid a massive push to develop the Kingdom’s Red Sea coastline and maximize tourism spending among the millions of Muslims who already visit the Kingdom each year as part of Hajj and Umrah.
“We want to beat Dubai, Malaysia and Turkey to the top spot,” said a senior official at the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCNH) in an interview on the sidelines of the World Travel Market in London.
“We have different projects in the pipeline and we are developing our pilgrimage sites. We are opening up our historical sites, we have five UNESCO sites and we are aiming to have 10 by 2020.
“We have everything in Saudi. Our history gives us competitive advantage. We have a beautiful natural landscape and thousands of years of Islamic and pre-Islamic history. We are open to all,” said the spokesman.
“For Muslims, we have the advantage that everything is already halal here.”
Saudi Arabia is planning to develop hundreds of kilometers of its Red Sea coastline as a global tourism destination and has enlisted the help of Virgin Group chief Richard Branson to advise on the ambitious project, which is a key plank of ongoing economic reforms.
The Kingdom is in the “final stages” of ratifying its much-anticipated tourist visas, which would grant unrestricted leisure travel in the country, the spokesman confirmed.
“We expect the tourist visa to be in issuance within six months.”
Currently Saudi Arabia issues two-week visas for those on business, pilgrimage or visiting resident family members — but they can be difficult to obtain. A specific visa for tourists would open up the country to foreign visitors and allow access to destinations beyond the holy sites of Makkah and Madinah.
The tourism official said that the Saudi government is working on ratifying tourist visas for visitors from 165 countries, including 66 Muslim countries.
He said the Kingdom would welcome all nationalities, all religions and female visitors.
“For women, they may not need to wear a headdress but it is thought an abaya will be necessary. The details of the new regulations will be confirmed with the coming months.”
He added, “Many people will be surprised by the heritage and landscapes that Saudi has. We have skiing, diving and beautiful beaches stretching across two seas.”
Dr. Yazeed Al-Shammari, founder of Arabian Nights, a major KSA tour operator, told Arab News he was looking forward to the new tourist visa “widening and developing” his business.
“People are very curious about Saudi Arabia because we have been closed for so long. Some people think that all we’ve got is sand and camels but the reality is we have much more variety and texture than that. I’ve already had many enquiries from European agents.”
Caroline Bremner, head of travel and tourism at Euromonitor, said:
“It will be interesting to see what Saudi does now as previously the focus was only on the Hajj. Saudi Arabia is a beautiful country with a lot to offer. There have been developments lately that make the country seem more attractive to visitors, such as allowing women to drive.
“As KSA opens up it will need to be very clear on what’s allowed and what’s not, so that visitors feel reassured of what the laws and customs are in Saudi, particularly after cases of tourist jailings in Dubai.
“It will also need to pay attention to the quality of its hotels and tourist experiences as it enters the world as an emerging tourist destination.”