How Saudi Arabia can boost its appeal for (global) sports tourism

28 March 2022 3 min. read
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Saudi Arabia has set the objective to grow its appeal for ‘sport tourists’ – tourists who either visit the country for a (major) sporting event or for performing recreational sports themselves. According to research from KPMG, in order to be successful, the Kingdom should cater to the diverse needs of all different types of tourists.

At present, the sports sector contributes around 0.2% of the Kingdom’s GDP, while the tourism sector contributes about 3%, according to the Ministry of Sport and the Ministry of Tourism. The two ministries have ambitious targets for growth: sports should contribute 0.6% of GDP and tourism 10% by 2030.

In its new report, titled ‘Competitive edge: The unfolding potential for sports tourism in Saudi Arabia’, experts from KPMG outline how one of the major drivers for growth sits at the crossroads of the two: sports tourism.

Recently held sports events in Saudi Arabia

The most well-known form of sports tourism is what KPMG describes as ‘spectator sports tourism’, referring to multi-sports games such as Olympics, Asian Games, Asia Cup, World Cup, Formula One, and more.

Saudi Arabia is for example already home to a Formula One race (in Jeddah, which was won yesterday by the Dutchman Max Verstappen in an epic head to head battle with Charles Leclerc), an international tennis and golf tournament, and several high-profile football games (the Saudi football team is one of Asia’s most successful, having won the Asian Cup three times). 

“Last year has already seen a large increase in activities and events hosted in Saudi Arabia, showcasing the capabilities and ambitions of hosting large-scale regional and global events,” said Hanan Alowain, Partner, Government and Public Sector at KPMG in Saudi Arabia. 

According to reports, Saudi Arabia is currently working on plans to host what would be its largest sporting event in history: the 2030 World Cup

A second model of sports tourism noted by KPMG is the ‘destination-dependent sports tourism’ category. This category groups tourists that are attracted to the Kingdom for its vast natural infrastructure. Examples include activities like diving and other watersports along the Red Sea coast, mountain climbing, as well as desert activities such as rally racing, running, cycling, motor and quad biking. 

The third category is billed as ‘alternative location sports tourism’, referring to the sport that tourists often play close to home when they are not on vacation. The sport – or entire vacation – is enhanced by the destination. A key example here is golf, already one of the most prolific tourism sports around the world. 

In its report, KPMG’s researchers contest that “Saudi Arabia’s landscape and coastline can provide an outstanding and spectacular environment for sports and could be a a game changer. Today home to 14 golf courses (7 on grass and 7 on sand), there are plans to build more than 10 new golf courses across the country over the next decade.

Rounding off the four categories identified, ‘participation-driven sports tourism’ refers to mass participation in sport activities, such as desert running and cycling races. Often, the event combines elite and amateur competitions.

From vision to action

The researchers conclude that sports tourism has a large potential to complement the already large flow of religious tourism into the country. Realizing this however requires “a clear multi-sport and multi-tourist strategy”, “investments in infrastructure”, and “coordination between organizers, mainly the private sector, public sector enablers and national tourism promoters”.

A full list of KPMG’s key recommendations per sport tourist category:

Key learnings

According to data from Saudi’s Ministry of Tourism, the Kingdom is the biggest tourist destination in the Middle East with over 20 million visitors recorded in 2021. Over two thirds of tourists took part in religious pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina, among others.