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Tourism takes hold in Saudi Arabia as international hotel chains announce expansions across the country

Saudi Arabia first opened its doors to foreigners on tourist visas in 2019. Before then, only business travellers and Muslim pilgrims were granted access to the territory. But the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is now eyeing tourism to diversify its economy and reduce its oil dependency, aiming to attract over 70 million visitors this year. And major players in the travel and leisure industry are intent on taking a foothold in this blossoming market.

IHG Hotels & Resorts recently struck a deal to open its second Hotel Indigo property in Jeddah, Saudi’s second-biggest city. Marriott International followed suit, disclosing plans to expand its footprint in the Middle East. While Marriott is already firmly established in the Saudi capital, the prestigious hotel chain looks forward to capitalising on the soaring demand for luxury offerings throughout the Gulf kingdom. 

Marriott International expects to boost its portfolio with six brand-new high-end properties in Saudi Arabia. As per a previous agreement between Marriott and the leading Saudi real estate company Al Saedan Group, the kingdom should also see its first Renaissance Hotel opened in 2025. Meanwhile, the much-anticipated inauguration of a Ritz-Carlton Reserve is slated for 2023. The exclusive brand’s first Middle Eastern property, Nujuma will be located on a pristine cluster of private islands on the Red Sea.

And Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Red Sea Project is driving the local travel industry to further heights. Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman himself formally launched the initiative in 2017. Construction started two years later along the shores of Tabuk province, with the initial phase expected to be completed later this year. This state-of-the-art complex will comprise luxury hotels, residential properties, and leisure facilities. Nestled on an archipelago spanning 90 islands, this extensive resort aims at setting new standards for sustainable development and regenerative tourism.  

The country’s tremendous effort toward catering to international visitors forms part of the Saudi Vision 2030 plan. This development program addresses the kingdom’s reliance on oil, with oil revenue accounting for nearly half of Saudi’s GDP. Highlighting the country’s natural riches and heritage sites, tourism is key to this strategic framework. Earlier in the summer, the Saudi Tourism Authority even appointed Lionel Messi as its official brand ambassador in a bid to leverage the Argentinian icon’s star power. 

But Saudi Vision 2030 extends beyond the hospitality sector, as Saudi Arabia has massively invested in brand-new recreational facilities. The Riyadh-based entertainment megaproject Al Qiddiya was unveiled in 2018, soon to be followed by a water theme park by 2024. Featuring a built-in motor racing circuit, the complex hopes to host a MotoGP race or a Formula One race in 2023. Saudi entertainment firm Seven also made headlines with plans to construct over 50 cinemas and 20 entertainment complexes across the country, from Jeddah to Makkah.

Incidentally, Saudi Arabia is now doubling down investments in the gaming industry to become a prominent esports hub. Tapping into the potential of esports tourism, the kingdom could use gaming as a serious soft power tool. However, local restrictions may come in the way of this bold strategy. As in the entire MENA region, iGaming is struggling in the country due to the cultural ban on gambling. Regardless, many Arabic punters choose to gamble on online casinos, known as  وهات اون لاين. Top platforms allow players across the Middle East and the Maghreb to enjoy classic table games and slots but also place bets on their favourite sports. Expert reviews offer them honest tips on how to gamble safely and protect their anonymity. And promotions like welcome bonuses and free bets are right there for the taking on the best websites.

Besides restrictions on entertainment, the country’s reputation for human rights abuse is another hindrance to the rise of tourism. NGOs like Amnesty International have long been vocal about the country’s lack of free speech and history of punitive actions toward human rights advocates. In this highly conservative society, women also are a long way from complete freedom. Yet, gender equality is making steady progress as the Saudi Vision 2030 embraces modernisation. 

Thus, while only time will tell how many tourists come to experience Saudi’s transformation from within, the country is surely working hard to make its way to the world’s top travel destinations.

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