Gone are the days when Saudi nationals make that long overseas trip to the US for tourism.
One can easily blame US president Trump for that, despite Saudi not being on that Muslim travel ban list, especially when US and Saudi geo-political and economic interests are aligned more than ever before.
On the other hand, the time has come for Saudi to be a tourism magnet and to do that, all procedures for tourist visas have been finally completed.
US visa stamps down
It’s at least an 11,000-kilometer, 13 hour flight between Saudi and New York, a trip fewer and fewer Saudis are making, whether for tourism, shopping or medical treatment, according to Arab News.
The US government’s National Travel and Tourism Office lists Saudi as the 30th most important source of tourists to the US, but while 286,000 Saudis visited the US in 2015, in 2007, only 39,000 Saudis made the trip.
US State Department figures show the number of non-immigrant visitors’ visas issued at its Saudi-based consulates fell sharply in 2017, President Donald Trump’s first year in the White House, as reported by the daily.
From 89,000 tourist and business visas in 2014 issued in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dhahran, that number dropped by 41% to 52,500 in 2017.
That works out for Saudi just fine, as the kingdom tries to not only keep its nationals in, but also lure tourists by the masses.
Saudi tourist stamps
According to Arabian Business, Saudi is aiming for 2.5 million Hajj pilgrims by2020, while pouring in investments of $49bn yearly on tourism projects in and around religious sites.
“Saudi Arabia plans to nearly double the number of incoming travellers to 30 million within the next 12 years, up from 18 million in 2016 when it earned $11.9bn in tourism receipts, primarily from visitors in the kingdom to perform Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages,” it said.
After receiving feedback from investors, tourism and transport professional, SCTH officials in charge of regulations governing tourist visas to the kingdom have completed required procedures and submitted their findings to higher authorities for approval.
A fully advanced and integrated electronic system will be used to process and record visa transactions.
“The kingdom possesses an unparalleled cultural heritage, and is growing a tourism industry rich in natural, cultural and purely touristic destinations,” SCTH President Prince Sultan bin Salman has previously said.
Currently, approximately 900,000 Saudis work in the travel and tourism sector, according to SCTH.
Sights to sea
The kingdom has some important archaeological and historic sites, including Madain Saleh, built by the ancient Nabateans who also constructed the rock-hewn city in Petra in Jordan, and Diriyah, a small historic city about 20 kilometres from Riyadh – both of which are Unesco World Heritage sites, said the National daily.
But mega projects underway include a 200 km stretch of the Red Sea coastline, also comprising 50 islands, which will be turned into a luxury destination featuring hotels, residences and entertainment.
This project has attracted British billionaire businessman Richard Branson who expressed his intent to invest, after going on a tour of Saudi desert and sea attractions, last year.
The $500bn 100% renewable city NEOM is also under development over 26,500 km2, and both projects have the backing of the Saudi Investment Fund (PIF) and a number of investors, like SoftBank which has pledged a $15bn investment in the latter.