Ahead of a number of new luxury hotels opening as part of the Red Sea Project in 2023, Saudi Arabia is making it easier than ever for tourists to enter the country from all over the world. Jenny Southan reports

Saudi Arabia is enabling residents of the UK, US and EU to get a visa on arrival in the destination, to make it easier than ever to access the country as a tourist.

The ministry is also allowing residents of Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) to apply for an electronic tourist visa (e-visa) to enter Saudi via the Visit Saudi website. (Saudi e-visas are additionally available to citizens of 49 other countries too – including China.)

The Saudi Tourism Authority, which only launched in June 2020, says the new visa options are a “solid step forward in making it even easier for tourists from all over the world to visit Saudi”.

A spokesperson says: “With an extensive variety of packages and full calendar of events taking place throughout the year, Saudi is creating exciting opportunities for travellers to experience the authentic home of Arabia.”

Fahd Hamidaddin, CEO of the Saudi Tourism Authority, says: “The facilitation of a tourist visa for millions of GCC residents and the visa on arrival extension supports our ambition to welcome 100 million visitors a year by 2030, to the world’s biggest new leisure tourism destination.Red Sea Development Company, Saudi Arabia“This is not just an announcement; it is an invitation and we are making it easier than ever for visitors to explore thousands of years of history and culture, unmatched natural landscapes, and a thriving entertainment sector. We welcome our neighbours, and the world, to experience the authentic home of Arabia.”

Saudi Arabia is also making the savvy decision to target the yet-to-be-liberated, luxury Chinese market. (Globetrender predicts the country will reopen next summer.)

In September, the Saudi Tourism Authority signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with global payment services provider UnionPay International. The agreement will support the development and strengthening of Saudi’s positioning as a tourism destination for UnionPay cardholders from China and around the world as Saudi drives forward its ambition to host Chinese visitors.

The MoU aims to enhance Saudi’s comparative advantage in attracting Chinese travellers to the country with STA and UnionPay International promoting Saudi as a UnionPay-friendly destination for the global Chinese community.

UnionPay already has extensive partnerships with banks in Saudi, including Al Rajhi, SNB, Al Inma, Riyad, and are actively expanding with the acceptance rate of UnionPay cards in Saudi expected to increase to more than 70 per cent by the end of 2022.

Hamidaddin says: “As Saudi accelerates its China-readiness programme across the different visitor touchpoints, this exceptional partnership will ensure Saudi is top-of mind for Chinese travellers and UnionPay cardholders wanting to explore and experience the authentic home of Arabia.”

James Yang, Head of UnionPay International Middle East, says: “This signing is an important part of UnionPay’s internationalisation strategy, and we hope that through continuous and in-depth co-operation, we can drive the development of tourism in Saudi. Together with Saudi Tourism Authority, we are creating opportunities for growth and creating greater convenience for our Chinese and global UnionPay cardholders.”

UnionPay has accelerated its regional business in recent years, to better meet the needs between China and the Middle East. At present, 11 countries and regions in the Middle East accept UnionPay cards.

Saudi has ambitious plans for the tourism sector and aims to be a top-five global tourism destination by 2030. By 2030, China is forecasted to be Saudi’s largest source market for international visits from the Asia-Pacific region.The Red Sea ProjectFinally, according to data from the UNWTO Tourism Barometer, Saudi is now the fastest-growing tourism destination in the G20.

A media release states: “Saudi Arabia’s exponential sector growth has seen an extraordinary 121 per cent increase from pre-pandemic international tourism levels as recognised by the newly published. The substantial tourism recovery recognises not only Saudi’s considerable investment in tourism, but also the country’s pioneering leadership in future-proofing its tourism sector.”

Saudi was swift in its response to the pandemic and rolled out vaccines to ensure high immunisation rates quickly which accelerated the easing of restrictions and the reopening of the country to tourists. The government also implemented several measures aimed at supporting companies and employees working in the tourism sector thereby mitigating the effects of the pandemic.

Tourism is a key pillar of Saudi’s transformative Vision 2030 and the country has ambitious goals to ensure that tourism contributes 10 per cent of the country’s GDP by 2030, with one million jobs created along the way.

According to the UNWTO Tourism Barometer, the global tourism sector saw international tourist arrivals almost triple from January to July 2022 (+172 per cent) compared to the same period of 2021.This means the sector recovered to almost 60 per cent of pre-pandemic levels.

His Excellency Ahmed Al Khateeb, Minister of Tourism of Saudi Arabia, and Chairman of the Board of Saudi Tourism Authority, says: “Recognition of Saudi’s achievements in the UNWTO Tourism Barometer is a key milestone in our extraordinary recovery and much of the success lies in our leadership’s multi-pronged approach to managing the pandemic and accelerating the sector’s pace of recovery.

“Saudi opened to the world in September 2019 and through continued leadership and commitment, we have made incomparable progress toward realising our ambitious Vision 2030 tourism goals. We are invested in a sustainable future for tourism, and today I am proud of Saudi’s position as the fastest growing tourism destination in the G20.”