OPN_190412- Riyadh at night gener Saudi Arabi
The Dubai-Riyadh route has seen significant increases in airline seat capacities, and March has been no exception. Image Credit: Agency

Dubai: Planning a trip to Saudi Arabia during Ramadan? While ticket rates from the UAE to Riyadh or Jeddah have not seen any change, getting the visa is taking much longer – a whole lot longer. Demand for travel to Riyadh and Jeddah has been on the rise with the kingdom emerging as a second base for more multinational companies operating in the region.

“Earlier, scheduling a visit to the local visa service provider for a Saudi visa used to take about a day, but now that alone takes at least 5 days,” said Subair Valappil, Senior Manager - Outbound Operations, Regal Tours. “After the appointment, travelers have to wait for another five days or so for the visa to come through.”

“We are seeing a lot of companies setting up offices in Riyadh and then later bringing in employees on a business visa,” said Valappil.

The business visa, unlike the normal tourist visa, offers multiple entry and can be issued for periods of up to 12 months. It could be the only option for some UAE-based expats as visit visas are still not open for citizens from countries such as India, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Busiest route

Riyadh has been the busiest air route from Dubai for months now. In March, the route had close to 260,000 airline seats– that’s almost 40,000 seats more than what airlines deployed on the Dubai-London route, once the busiest travel route during the pandemic. Even New York-London – a historically popular route – finished fourth in aviation consultancy OAG’s rankings for March with just about 175,000 seats.

Ramadan demand and fare bounce
Airfares between Dubai and Riyadh cost between Dh800-Dh1,400. Jeddah is slightly cheaper with seats available for less than Dh700. Flights to Bahrain can cost as much as Dh930.

Outside of the Gulf, Cairo is a frequented destination and that shows in the fares. A one-way ticket costs at least Dh1,300, with one carrier charging more than Dh7,000 for a flight scheduled on March 31 - two days before the start of Ramadan.

Business travel

Shanavas Hussain works as a public relations manager with UAE-based gym operator Enhance Fitness, which is opening branches in Saudi Arabia. “We are shifting some employees from UAE and also recruiting in Saudi Arabia to meet regulatory requirements,” said Hussain. “I travel to Riyadh at least once in two weeks to take care of our operations there.”

According to Creation Business Consultants, 44 multinational companies opened regional headquarters in Saudi Arabia in October alone.

“We anticipate this trend to continue in the next 18 months as companies prepare to meet the January 2024 deadline set by the Saudi government to be eligible for government contract awards,” said Scott Cairns, Creation’s Managing Director.

All this translates to more business travel on the route. Business travel expenditure in the Middle East is forecast to rise by 32 per cent this year, following a predicted 49 per cent increase during 2021, according to a report by World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC).

“During 2021, the increase in business spending for the full year is expected to have actually outpaced spending on leisure travel by 13 per cent in the Middle East,” said Danielle Curtis, Exhibition Director ME – Arabian Travel Market (ATM).

Other Gulf destinations

As for travel to and between other destinations in the Gulf, demand has not been very encouraging. Travel agents said travel plans to Kuwait and Qatar have been hit by visa restrictions. Even Oman, a top domestic tourism hotspot for UAE residents, is not seeing much traction, especially since many prefer going by road. “Travelers have called us up from the (Omani) border demanding a visa within an hour,” said a travel agent.

Private flights

Demand for chartered flights seems to have gone back to normal after experiencing a boom over the last two years. During the peak of the pandemic, businessmen and other travellers were making short trips within the Gulf as commercial flights had more or less come to a halt.

“With normal flights resuming in the region, passengers are once again opting for Business- or First class,” said Valappil. “Most take private jets only to fly to long-haul destinations such as US, Europe and South America.”