Saudi Arabia surpasses UAE as GCC's fastest-growing travel market

06 November 2023 2 min. read

After years of trailing the UAE, Saudi Arabia has now overtaken its chief rival in the region as the GCC's fastest-growing travel market.

Saudi Arabia has seen a remarkable 107% increase in gross bookings in 2022 compared with last year and a projected growth of 65% by 2026. That is according to a report by Insight Out Consultancy and Phocuswright.

In 2022, Saudi Arabia welcomed an estimated 18 million international visitors, making it the most visited of all Arab countries. UAE was the second most visited, with around 15 million tourists last year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization. This growth mirrors a broader trend, with the Middle East's travel sector anticipated to expand by 40% from 2022 to 2026.

Saudi Arabia surpasses UAE as GCC's fastest-growing travel market

Mada'in Saleh, Al Ula, Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia draws in tourists with its range of offerings, including several World Heritage Sites, the Saudi Seasons, and sporting events.

The country is also home to the largest pilgrimage in the Muslim faith, the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest city, Mecca, which all Muslims are called upon to complete at least once in their lives. Over three million people perform the Hajj in month of Dhu al-Hijjah and two million during the month of Ramadan. Another four million visitors make pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina at other times of the year.

The ambitious forecast for tourism growth is driven by strategic collaboration between the Saudi government and the private sector, aimed at fostering mega projects like the Red Sea Project and Neom. Such endeavours are expected to draw millions more tourists, supported by the nation's gargantuan $800 billion, 10-year investment plan part of Vision 2030.

Looking ahead, the Insight Out Consultancy and Phocuswright report suggests Saudi’s tourism sector will maintain its fast momentum. By 2026, the number of tourists visiting the country is projected to be 65% higher than today.

To accommodate higher tourist numbers, Saudi Arabia has also made significant investments in enhancing vital infrastructure including airports, roads, and hotels, and transport. The Kingdom has also eased visa requirements and now offers a unified GCC tourism visa, which has played a pivotal role in increasing leisure tourist arrivals.

Travel suppliers, especially hotels, have responded by integrating more sophisticated online back-end systems, including booking engines and distribution channels. The overall hotel room capacity in Saudi Arabia is expected to triple to 450,000 by 2030.

Saudi Arabia, along with much the rest of the GCC countries, has been working to shift their entire economy away from fossil fuels by growing other industries, including tourism. With an eye to the 2034 World Cup, to be hosted by Saudi Arabia, leadership in the Kingdom is looking to boost their international appeal as much as they can in the run up.