Manila: Saudi Arabia has embarked on an ambitious programme to boost inbound tourism and considers India a key market, said Saudi Tourism Board CEO Fahd Hamidaddin.
Hamidaddin, who has been the chief of investment, strategy and tourism marketing for the Saudi Ministry of Tourism, spoke to PTI on the sidelines of the World Travel and Tourism Council Global Summit in Manila.
“We went on a road trip to India, met a lot of travel agents there and have some promising partnerships. Now, our focus is on air carriers. We want to develop routes from India and grow these routes. We want to promote the destinations with our trade partners from India,” Hamidaddin said.
“I am expecting a lot (of bilateral agreements) to be signed this year. Because we feel India is definitely a key market for Saudi. The government is also addressing the issue of accessibility with visas and air connectivity for leisure, business and religious travel,” said Hamidaddin, who is in charge of the Visit Saudi destination brand.
He also referred to efforts to make Umrah more accessible and less expensive for travellers from the Muslim world.
“We found out that some brokers are marking up the cost of getting to Saudi for Umrah (pilgrimage made by Muslims to Mecca), and that should not happen,” he said.
“Historically, Saudi Arabia has dedicated a certain number for Umrah to dedicated travel agents,” Hamidaddin said. “Now, we are going to open up for all the travel industry, so that any travel agent can offer Umrah packages,” he said.
Indian travellers are very well acquainted with the Middle East, he said.
“There are people who come to Saudi historically, the Muslims. We are trying to make it a lot easier as far as access is concerned. The message is that we welcome everyone,” he added.
The appetite from Indians is very promising, he said.
Asked about restrictions for foreign tourists in his country, Hamidaddin said, “We have started lifting so many restrictions. In the past, women (tourists) were asked to wear abaya (loose-fitting full-length robe). We no longer ask them to do so. As long as they wear modest (clothes) it is fine.
“Earlier, (foreign tourist) couples (staying at a hotel) needed to prove they were married. A marriage certificate was required while checking in. We don’t ask for that anymore,” he said.
Hamidaddin said Saudi is delivering on its ambitions to open up to a new tourist market and grow travel and tourism into one of its biggest earners following the pandemic.
“Saudi is the latest large destination to open up for the world. I say large as in with the number of cities, destinations and very diverse culture it has. We started opening tourism in 2019 but then the pandemic came,” he said.
“A key learning was about accessibility, which needs to be eased to the maximum,” he said.
“We started with e-visas for 49 countries around the world, as well as allowing citizens of any country holding a valid US, UK and Schengen visa to get a visa on arrival. Tourist visas are available through Saudi consulates worldwide and we are continuing to work on further facilitating access for people who are eager to visit Saudi,” he said.
Hamidaddin said the Saudis are looking at creating “easy and digitally trackable measures” so that people can get visas electronically.
“This is what we are now studying and it should be addressed later this year,” he added.
By the end of last year, inbound tourists to Saudi were 72 per cent of the pre-pandemic levels, outperforming any other country, he said. We are expecting the second-quarter results to reach 150 per cent, he added.
Saudi is going through an amazing transformation and tourism is at the forefront, he said.
Saudi Arabia combines authentic Arabian culture, pristine nature, diverse landscapes and culture, and a rapidly expanding entertainment offer, he added.
There are six UNESCO World Heritage sites and over 10,000 archaeological sites, including the pristine Red Sea, home to coral reefs and huge biodiversity.
Saudi is recognised as the most exciting investment opportunity in tourism today, he said.