Saudi Arabia has hit its tourism target seven years early, but there is still work to be done to be a global travel super power.
Saudi Arabia’s tourism minister says the kingdom counted more than 100 million tourists in 2023 – the numbers show growth in visits from international travelers, but that it still has work to do to become a globally competitive destination.
Here’s the count shared by tourism minister Ahmed bin Aqeel Al Khateeb:
- Saudi saw 77 million domestic tourists and 27 million international ones, totaling 104 million visits.
- 77 million is the same number of domestic tourists Saudi had in 2022. The overall figure was boosted by a 11 million international visitors.
- Al Khateeb highlighted a new strategy set by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman to attract 150 million tourists by 2030, with 80 million domestic and 70 million international tourists.
- Total spending reached SAR100 billion ($26.67 billion) last year.
The Saudis don’t say exactly ‘how’ a domestic 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 a domestic tourism trip or part of an outbound tourism trip.”
Saudi’s Leisure and Religious Travel Mix
Growing leisure tourism is a principal focus; diversifying the county from its historic religious tourism sector that benefits from hajj and umrah pilgrims.
For now, the leisure tourism sector Saudi is trying to build – whether it be through new hotels, festivals, sports events and giga-projects – has mostly pulled in locals.
For Saudi locals, leisure trips have significantly increased. 45% of all domestic trips by locals in the first half of 2023 were for leisure purposes, according to the ministry’s data. 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 made up 23% and religious tourism accounted for 45%. In 2022, 15% of travelers visited for leisure, while in 2021, it was 9%.
The country’s wave of new developers are looking at ways to appeal to the massive base of religious travelers whose trips start and end in the holy cities.
John Pagano, CEO of Red Sea Global, sees an opportunity for his upcoming projects to extend the stays of these pilgrims.
“Think about the size of that market, one and a half billion Muslims in the world,” Pagano told Skift in an interview last December.
“So if we can tap into that market and have them make it a once-in-a-lifetime trip where they do the religious piece, which is hugely important and then tack on a family vacation at something that’s reasonably affordable, I think it’s a very deep market for us. (Religious travelers) tend to spend more middle and lower end of the (travel) market.”
Located nearer to Jeddah, one of Pagano’s new projects could seek to draw in the city’s many religious travelers. Jeddah is located approximately an hour from Makkah, one of the most important locations in all of Islam.
Booking expenditures of local Saudi travelers went up by 10.8% last year, while most consumers (75%) chose to book local destinations with low-cost carriers, data from travel company Almosafer, part of Seera Group, showed.
“This indicates that domestic travelers are spending more on in-destination expenses, including accommodation and activities while saving on their journeys,” the travel firm said in a report.
The nation has relaxed its entry requirements by implementing the eVisa program, which now encompasses 63 countries and special administrative regions, along with the GCC residents visa. Additionally, there is a complimentary 96-hour stopover visa available, granting visitors a free one-night hotel stay if they book with the national carrier, Saudia. This stopover visa allows travelers to explore Saudi Arabia and undertake umrah.