A key goal under Vision 2030 is to increase the number of tourists who visit Saudi Arabia and revenues generated from the sector to 18 percent in the next 14 years. Under the same scheme, Saudi Arabia is expected to host up to 1.5 million tourists by 2020. It's true that much of that number comes from religious tourism, but that doesn't mean effort hasn't been put into the growth of the leisure tourism sector.
In fact, the kingdom has been slowly inviting tourists to enjoy the many activities, summer festivals, sporting events, and concerts. At the end of last year, the kingdom announced it will begin offering electronic visas for foreign visitors who wish to attend sporting events and concerts. 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.
This summer, Saudi Arabia did the same thing when the Jeddah Season festival began. All attendees from abroad were granted a visa online upon purchasing an event ticket.
This September, the kingdom will most likely announce a new tourist visa scheme. The news was initially reported by local newspaper Okaz. However, that report has since been deleted. Bloomberg has since looked into the matter, reporting that visa applications will probably open up very soon, citing three sources familiar with the matter.
In the now-deleted Okaz report, it was announced that Saudi Arabia will begin issuing tourist visas towards the end of the month to citizens of 50 countries. This detail was confirmed by one of Bloomberg's sources. Another source said the "country list was still in flux," according to the report. The visa will cost $117 and will be valid for 90 days once granted.
Though this hasn't been officially announced by government officials, Arab News reported that industry sources confirmed there would be an event titled "Saudi Arabia opens to tourism" later this month. It aims to showcase the country's tourist attractions. The government has said its plans "hadn't been finalized yet," according to Bloomberg.
But, tourist visas have been in the making for quite some time and underwent a trial period between 2008 and 2010.
In 2017, some Saudi travel agencies - classified in category D - were given the authorization to begin issuing travel visas. Formerly, visas were only available to pilgrims, business people with a local sponsor, and family members of residents.
On top of making travel to the country more accessible, Saudi Arabia has been putting time and resources into transforming the kingdom into a tourism hotspot. The kingdom is currently working on developing its Red Sea coast into a luxury beach destination governed by "independent laws." The project aims at transforming Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastline into a global hub for tourists, 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's efforts have already been acknowledged. At the end of last year, 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.
The biggest contributor to the tourism sector is, and will continue to be over the next decade, religious tourism. But, Saudi Arabia is expecting to witness a change in the decades that follow.