Saudi Arabia hopes it can extend its tourism industry beyond the religious pilgrimages of haj and umrah, in December announcing it will start issuing tourist visas in the first quarter of 2018. Other reforms specifically targeted at easing socio-cultural restrictions support this decision that will directly open up the conservative country to visitors: women will be allowed to drive by June this year, the 35-year-old ban on cinemas was lifted last month, and for the first time in Saudi Arabia, just last week women were allowed to attend a men’s soccer match.
As part of sweeping changes, the tourism sector is a central tenet of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s “Vision 2030” and 2020 National Transformation Program, which constitute unprecedented plans to wean the country off its oil dependence, shrink the importance of the state and create millions of new private sector jobs to meet the demands of its young, expanding population.
The huge tourism targets laid out in the NTP appear impossible to achieve without extending the sector beyond religious pilgrimage; Saudi will invest 171.5 billion riyals ($45.7 billion) in tourism by 2020, NTP states, which will boost sector jobs to 1.2 million from 830,000. The plan envisages creating five new destinations by 2020, while also increasing the number of museums to 241 from 155 and archaeological sites open to visitors to 155 from 75.
Hilton seems convinced by Saudi’s plans, with the U.S. firm set to open 30 new hotels in the kingdom over the next 3-5 years in addition to the 10 already in operation in the likes of Mecca, Riyadh, Jeddah and Medina. Once complete, this expansion will raise its room count to 10,800 from 3,100 at present.
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