As Muslim worshippers full a second Hajj pilgrimage pared down by coronavirus restrictions, Saudi Arabia is urgent forward with plans to restart the dominion’s nascent secular tourism sector as a part of its ongoing efforts to diversify its financial system away from fossil fuels.
Religious tourism has historically been one of many few methods guests may enter the dominion – home to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest cities.
That custodianship makes Saudi Arabia a vacation spot for outsiders. Between the Hajj, which occurs at specified occasions annually and is among the 5 pillars of Islam, and Umrah, a pilgrimage to the holy websites that may happen at any time, the dominion hosted 9.5 million pilgrims in 2019.
But Riyadh has plans to faucet a vacationer market past non secular pilgrims, as a part of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) Vision 2030 blueprint to evolve the financial system past oil revenues.
In September 2019, Riyadh launched a vacationer e-visa geared toward attracting non-Muslim guests. But it had barely launched when COVID-19 floor the worldwide tourism business to a halt final yr.
Pandemic restrictions additionally hit Saudi’s established non secular tourism business onerous.
Only 60,000 vaccinated Saudi residents and residents had been allowed on the pilgrimage this yr, whereas in 2020 the variety of worshippers was restricted to 1,000.
The kingdom reopened its borders to quite a few nations for tourism on May 30, however has since enacted new closures with the outbreak of the COVID-19 Delta variant.
“Obviously, this was another unprecedented year. Business around the pilgrimage was halted along with the newer adventure and cultural tourism sectors,” Chris Rosenkrans, a Jeddah-based tourism advisor, informed Al Jazeera.
For Jeddah-based tour information Samir Komosani, watching his nation closed off to any form of worldwide customer is tough.
“This big beautiful country has so much to offer visitors and I love sharing the hidden secrets of it,” he informed Al Jazeera. “I think as COVID recedes we will see people from all over the world coming to Saudi Arabia.”
His optimism is shared by leaders in Riyadh who hope to spice up tourism revenues from three p.c of the nation’s complete gross home product to 10 p.c by 2030.
Saudi Arabia is aiming to draw 100 million vacationers a yr by the tip of the last decade and improve the variety of non secular guests from 17 million to 30 million by 2025.
To accommodate these hoped-for guests, the federal government is increasing tourism infrastructure and attempting to make the traditionally conservative nation a extra open and numerous vacation spot for Western guests and spiritual vacationers alike.
In July, MBS introduced plans to create a brand new nationwide airline provider and dedicated to take a position over $147bn in transportation infrastructure over the following 9 years. The kingdom can be mulling the development of a brand new airport in Riyadh, Bloomberg News reported, citing folks conversant in the matter.
“That [the new airline announcement] is really the pinnacle of tourism and shows their intentions,” Adel Hamaizia, a Gulf scholar at Chatham House, informed Al Jazeera. “The big question is ‘Can Saudi attract enough travellers to make projects like the airline feasible?’”
The scale of Saudi Arabia’s ambitions could be seen within the megaprojects it’s endeavor. The Red Sea Development Company – a agency owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), the dominion’s sovereign wealth fund – is constructing 50 accommodations and 1,300 residential items alongside the nation’s Red Sea coast as a part of an eco-friendly coral reef resort.
The PIF, which is tasked with deploying the nation’s oil wealth to extra sustainable industries, can be investing in a 334km leisure capital and the $500bn zero-carbon desert megacity NEOM, which is the centrepiece of MBS’s financial transformation plans.
But Saudi Arabia faces stiff competitors from its neighbours. Across the Red Sea lies Egypt, the place the coast is dotted with giant, established seaside resorts, comparable to Sharm el-Sheikh. They have been working for many years and have the benefit of decrease costs, to not point out relaxed social codes and alcohol gross sales.
To the north, Jordan has additionally change into a serious tourism hub attracting guests to websites like Petra and Wadi Rum, whereas the United Arab Emirates is doubling down on the hospitality sector as a part of its efforts to wean its financial system off fossil fuels.
But Saudi Arabia has one thing its neighbours don’t: the 2 holiest shrines in Islam.
“We have been in the business of travel for more than a thousand years,” Komosani factors out, discussing the dominion’s mantle because the cradle of Islam.
Bader Al-Saif, a Gulf scholar with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, stated the dominion is set to draw extra Western and Muslim vacationers alike, however that custodianship of the holy websites provides them clear benefits with the latter.
“The pilgrims by default become tourists and no other country has that,” he stated. “The Saudis want them to go to Mecca and Medina, but why not give them options to go somewhere else after that?”
Religious vacationers might also discover themselves extra snug in a resort or metropolis the place alcohol is just not served and social codes, albeit extra relaxed lately, are nonetheless measured.
The kingdom’s efforts to develop its tourism sector may additionally yield dividends nearer to home in the event that they handle to maintain Saudi residents – and their vacation spending – at home.
Saudis spent $22bn travelling overseas in 2019. In a rustic the place greater than half the inhabitants is below the age of 30, many voters go overseas in search of leisure choices.
The liberalising social reforms spearheaded by MBS, whether or not or not it’s permitting live shows or the blending of women and men in public locations, is as a lot about modernising society as it’s about engaging younger Saudis to trip in their very own nation. And whereas the coronavirus pandemic restricted the variety of Hajj pilgrims for a second yr, it bolstered the federal government’s efforts to advertise home tourism.
“Tourism is not only dependent on people outside,” Komosani stated. “The Saudi tourist is the most wanted in the world.”
Enticing home vacationers and offering extra choices for non secular pilgrims might probably be extra achievable objectives within the quick time period than attracting numerous guests from the West, he stated.
“It’s not going to be Dubai overnight,” Rosenkrans famous.
But Komosani is assured that international vacationers will come. And once they do, he is able to present all of them his nation has to supply.
“Why do you think we have this new airline?” he asks emphatically. “Because we believe there will be a demand.”