Nearly 700 years ago, on June 14, 1325 to be precise, Ibn Battuta rode out of Tangier, part of modern day Morocco, on a donkey. The famed traveller was just 21 when he started his journey to the holy city of Mecca, “swayed by an overmastering impulse within” and “a desire long-cherished in his bosom” to visit illustrious sanctuaries. Rest, as they say, is history. It was indeed a very humble beginning of a journey that lasted a lifetime and till date continues to regale us with its fabled accounts. That is the beauty of travel – it is enamouring to the core.
Little wonder that today the business volume of tourism equals or even surpasses that of oil exports, food products or automobiles! According to UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), tourism contributes 10% of the world’s GDP and is one of the major players in international commerce.
Saudi Arabia, having recorded a significant increase in the contribution of national tourism to GDP as one of the high growth non-oil economic sectors, is a case in point. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, Saudi Arabia’s travel and tourism sector is expected to contribute more than $81 billion to the country’s GDP by 2026! Outbound, as well as domestic tourism segments, are recording optimistic numbers. Estimates suggest that Saudis spent more than half a trillion riyals on foreign tourism in the last 10 years. Meanwhile, the number of local tourist trips inside Saudi Arabia, exceeded 47.5 million in 2016 alone. The tourism revenues of the Kingdom grew from SR 57.3 billion (US$ 15.2 billion) in 2004 to SR 166.8 billion (US$ 43.1 billion) by the end of 2016 while the number of licensed accommodation facilities saw a 300% increase in the last five odd years. The number of international hotel operation companies also increased from 8 in 2002 to 25 in 2016. The $21 billion industry is responsible for more than 22 sectors and currently engages 9,36,000 people directly, a figure expected to reach 1.2 million by 2020.
According to a Euromonitor International Tourism Forecast report, Saudi Arabia’s domestic tourism segment is expected to grow by 40% by 2020. Kingdom’s religious tourism sector, currently valued at over $5 billion, is gearing up to welcome 30 million Hajj and Umrah visitors to the Holy cities of Makkah and Madinah annually by 2025. National, Arab, Islamic and ancient cultural sites are being restored with the endeavour to more than double the number of Saudi heritage sites registered with UNESCO by 2030. Meanwhile, an Islamic museum, equipped with the latest methods in collection, preservation, presentation and documentation is also being built.
Saudi Arabia has a lot to offer beyond the two holy cities. There are a host of destinations to cater to travellers of different ilk – archaeological sites, pristine beaches, monuments etcetera. For instance, Souk Okaz, a unique ancient tourism destination in the Taif region, continues to be a big draw for tourists. With roots deeply entrenched into its Arabic past, the Souk served as an artistic forum where intellectuals and people from the literature and culture fraternity gathered and displayed their art in the ancient past. Today, it combines an ancient market with modern technologies ubiquitously used in the display of its grandeur. Visitors get the opportunity to understand the cultural value of the Souk through seminars and lectures which take into account the glorious original Arab heritage, especially through the art of Al Mo’alagat (interactive poetry). A Souk Okaz development program, with a new Okaz City that includes new tourism attractions, is also in the pipeline and SR 815 million (US$ 217 million) has been assigned for the same.
The near-meteoric growth of the tourism industry in the Kingdom has been steered primarily by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH). Right after its inception in 2001, the Commission created a 20-year tourism development strategy along with five-years operational plans for each region of the Kingdom. It received a SR 1.11 billion (US$ 296 million) as budget for the current fiscal year, 79% higher than last year’s allocation. It reflects the state’s belief in the importance of tourism and national heritage (as one of the essential elements of the National Transformation Program 2020 and the Kingdom’s Vision 2030) in supporting the national economy, creating job opportunities, diversifying income sources, and building a strong national economy for the current and future generations.
SCTH has established several programs and centers for the overall development of the tourism portfolio. Chief among them are the National Urban Heritage Centre, National Handicraft Program (Bari), Saudi Exhibition & Convention Bureau (SECB), and Historical Mosques Caring Program. 98 initiatives are being carried out currently including rehabilitating and operating 15 handicraft centres, 18 urban heritage sites, 80 archaeological sites and establishing 18 regional museums. Right from development of Fursan Islands and Al Raas Al Abyad shore to the urgent rescue of heritage buildings in Al-Ahsa Oasis to the rehabilitation study of the historic city center in Eshigra, the entire Kingdom is dotted with tourism development projects. Recently, SCTH also organized trips to the Souk Okaz Festival under the ‘After-Umrah Tours’ program to promote tourism trips outside the two holy cities.