The tourism sector in Saudi Arabia has been making strides in the past few months, and many people have been taking note. The most recent to express optimism in the sector is Pascal Gauvin, managing director of InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) in India, the Middle East, and Africa.

In a recent statement to Arabian Business, the hotel executive said the kingdom's Red Sea is "equivalent to the Maldives or Seychelles," and will attract tourists once it opens to the public. 

"When I see the Red Sea, which has never been operated, I mean what a privilege. People pay a lot to go to the Maldives or Seychelles, but this is equivalent and an unspoiled area that's never been seen before," he explained. 

While Gauvin added that he can't accurately rate the site against the Maldives before it's completed, he believes there's huge potential. 

"I don't know if [the Red Sea] will become the new Maldives but when I see the Red Sea site, I see potential. We're already talking to them about potential hotels in this place. When I see the quality of the beach, the seriousness of the development team, it's quite remarkable and we're very impressed in the way they want to do it," he added.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia unveiled its plans to transform the Red Sea coast into a luxury beach destination governed "by independent laws." According to a document initially reported by Bloomberg, the development will be a "semi-autonomous" area within the kingdom, leading to speculation that the kingdom's traditional rules on dress and prohibition on alcohol will not be applied. 

The project aims to transform the kingdom's Red Sea coastline into a global tourism hotspot, with luxury hotels and pristine beaches. 

Construction work on the project began earlier this year. The first phase is expected to be completed by the end of 2022, including the development of hotels and luxury residential units, as well as all logistical infrastructure - including air, land, and sea transport hubs.

The kingdom has been reliant on religious tourism

Saudi Arabia has always relied on religious tourism when it comes to income from the sector and that doesn't seem likely to change over the next decade. In 2019, the kingdom's tourism industry is expected to contribute $70.9 billion to the country's GDP, with the biggest contributor coming from pilgrims arriving in the kingdom to perform hajj and umrah.  

According to Arab News, international arrivals are expected to increase 5.6 percent per year, reaching 23.3 million by 2023.

By 2030, Saudi Arabia is expected to host 30 million pilgrims. Previously, the numbers were at 19 million pilgrims, from both hajj and umrah, in 2017.

"More relaxed access to visas and the growth of the umrah market are expected to be key drivers in the growth of international tourism in the kingdom," said Danielle Curtis, Middle East exhibition director at the Arabian Travel Market (ATM). 

Saudi's leisure tourism is also set to boom

Leisure tourism will also be growing and contributing to the country's GDP in the coming few years as the kingdom moves to reduce its dependence on oil.

A key goal under Vision 2030 is to increase the number of tourists in the kingdom and revenues generated from tourism to 18 percent in the next 14 years. Under the ambitious blueprint, Saudi Arabia is expected to host up to 1.5 million tourists by 2020. 

In December, the kingdom launched the visa service for visitors for the motoring event Formula E and saw 1,000 tourists from 80 countries land in the kingdom.

In 2017, some Saudi travel agencies - classified in category D - were given the authorization to begin issuing travel visas. That same year, the kingdom announced it will begin issuing tourist visas in the first quarter of 2018. Formerly, visas were only available to pilgrims, business people with a local sponsor, and family members of residents.

The kingdom's efforts to attract tourists haven't gone unnoticed. In December, the Saudi city of Al-Ahsa was named the "Capital of Arab Tourism" for 2019.

Al-Ahsa is a traditional oasis and historical area situated in eastern Saudi Arabia. It is known for its lush greenery and water springs. Its name is also used by the Al-Ahsa Governorate, which takes up the majority of the kingdom's eastern province. 

The city has received attention on more than one occasion. In 2016, Al-Ahsa was named "most creative city in the world" by the United Nations. In July 2018, UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage Site - becoming the 5th site in the kingdom to be given the status.