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 economic system away from fossil fuels.
Non secular tourism has historically been one of many few methods guests might enter the dominion – dwelling 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.
However 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) Imaginative and prescient 2030 blueprint to evolve the economic system past oil revenues.
In September 2019, Riyadh launched a vacationer e-visa geared toward attracting non-Muslim guests. Nevertheless it had barely launched when COVID-19 floor the worldwide tourism trade to a halt final yr.
Pandemic restrictions additionally hit Saudi’s established non secular tourism trade arduous.
Solely 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 dominion reopened its borders to quite a few nations for tourism on Could 30, however has since enacted new closures with the outbreak of the COVID-19 Delta variant.
“Clearly, this was one other unprecedented yr. Business across the pilgrimage was halted together with the newer journey and cultural tourism sectors,” Chris Rosenkrans, a Jeddah-based tourism advisor, instructed Al Jazeera.
For Jeddah-based tour information Samir Komosani, watching his nation closed off to any form of worldwide customer is tough.
“This big lovely nation has a lot to supply guests and I like sharing the hidden secrets and techniques of it,” he instructed Al Jazeera. “I believe as COVID recedes we’ll see individuals from everywhere in the world coming to Saudi Arabia.”
His optimism is shared by leaders in Riyadh who hope to spice up tourism revenues from 3 % of the nation’s whole gross home product to 10 % by 2030.
Saudi Arabia is aiming to draw 100 million vacationers a yr by the top of the last decade and enhance 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 non secular vacationers alike.
In July, MBS introduced plans to create a brand new nationwide airline provider and dedicated to speculate over $147bn in transportation infrastructure over the subsequent 9 years. The dominion can be mulling the development of a brand new airport in Riyadh, Bloomberg News reported, citing individuals aware of the matter.
“That [the new airline announcement] is absolutely the top of tourism and exhibits their intentions,” Adel Hamaizia, a Gulf scholar at Chatham Home, instructed Al Jazeera. “The big query is ‘Can Saudi entice sufficient travellers to make tasks just like the airline possible?’”
The size of Saudi Arabia’s ambitions might be seen within the megaprojects it’s endeavor. The Pink Sea Improvement Firm – a agency owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Funding Fund (PIF), the dominion’s sovereign wealth fund – is constructing 50 inns and 1,300 residential models alongside the nation’s Pink Coastline 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.
However Saudi Arabia faces stiff competitors from its neighbours. Throughout the Pink Sea lies Egypt, the place the coast is dotted with massive, established seashore resorts, equivalent to Sharm el-Sheikh. They’ve 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 turn 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 economic system off fossil fuels.
However Saudi Arabia has one thing its neighbours don’t: the 2 holiest shrines in Islam.
“We’ve got been within the enterprise of journey for greater 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 Center East Heart in Beirut, stated the dominion is set to draw extra Western and Muslim vacationers alike, however that custodianship of the holy websites offers them clear benefits with the latter.
“The pilgrims by default turn into vacationers and no different nation has that,” he stated. “The Saudis need them to go to Mecca and Medina, however why not give them choices to go someplace else after that?”
Non secular vacationers can also discover themselves extra comfy in a resort or metropolis the place alcohol is just not served and social codes, albeit extra relaxed in recent times, are nonetheless measured.
The dominion’s efforts to develop its tourism sector might additionally yield dividends nearer to dwelling in the event that they handle to maintain Saudi residents – and their vacation spending – at dwelling.
Saudis spent $22bn travelling overseas in 2019. In a rustic the place greater than half the inhabitants is beneath the age of 30, many voters go overseas searching for leisure choices.
The liberalising social reforms spearheaded by MBS, whether or not or not it’s permitting live shows or the blending of males and girls in public locations, is as a lot about modernising society as it’s about attractive 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 just not solely depending on individuals exterior,” Komosani stated. “The Saudi vacationer is essentially the most needed on this planet.”
Attractive home vacationers and offering extra choices for non secular pilgrims might doubtless 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 in a single day,” Rosenkrans famous.
However 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 assume now we have this new airline?” he asks emphatically. “As a result of we imagine there shall be a requirement.”