A craftsman at the Saudi Arabia stall during the Arabian Travel Market 2013. Business tourism in the kingdom has shown modest growth in the last few years. Image Credit: Zarina Fernandes/ Gulfnews

Dubai: Saudi Arabia may soon drop its barriers to GCC residents that want to explore other areas of the kingdom. “Soon, we will announce new visa packages for travellers to the kingdom,” said Prince Sultan Bin Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, President of Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), during a forum at the Arabian Travel Market (ATM) on Tuesday.

He added that visitors to Makkah and Madinah “want to visit more of the country”.

Saudi Arabia issues a number of visas to non-GCC nationals, designed for the purposes of business, family visits, Umrah and Haj, among others. Yet, there are no tourism visas in the kingdom.

While the exact time of when these visa packages will be launched remains unknown, travellers can expect something else in the short term. Due to be implemented in late December this year is the Umrah Plus programme, which allows travellers to go on trips to other cities in the country after they perform Umrah, according to Abdullah S. Al Jehani, vice-president for marketing and programmes at SCTA.

This leaves non-Muslim visitors with fewer options. Their entry is limited to business engagements, Al Jehani said.

Saudi Arabia’s marketing efforts are targeted at GCC countries, its strongest international markets, as well as nationals and residents of the kingdom, according to Al Jehani.

While the country welcomes millions of pilgrims every year, Islamic tourism is not Saudi Arabia’s only focus. “We focus our marketing on Saudi Arabia’s business activities, such as exhibitions, and antiquities,” he said.

The capital city Riyadh is home to a number of trade exhibitions. The Riyadh Exhibitions Company (REC) has organised more than 330 shows in the last 30 years, across different sectors, including food and beverages, automotives and energy, and has attracted international participants from over 40 countries.

Business tourism in the kingdom has shown modest growth over the last few years. “Business tourism in the country is growing at a rate of four per cent year-on-year, and it is expected to reach double-digits in the next two to three years.” Al Jehani said. He added that there were more than two million business trips in Saudi Arabia last year.

Meanwhile, the country’s antiquities or cultural artifacts are being emphasised in the country’s marketing efforts. The SCTA, which participated at ATM this week, exhibited various products that cities across Saudi Arabia have to offer. The kingdom is expected to host 15.8 million tourists by 2014, according to Business Monitor International (BMI), an international industry consultant.

The hospitality sector is showing strong signs of growth to keep up with rising inflow of tourists. Around 178,870 hotel rooms are expected to be delivered in Saudi Arabia by 2017, with occupancy rates rising to 63 per cent, according to BMI. There are several hotel brands in the country, including Rotana, Hyatt Hotels and Resorts and Accor.

Additionally, Saudi Arabia has been ramping up efforts in developing its infrastructure, with major rail and road projects expected to be delivered in the coming years.

Saudi Arabia has 35 airports that are being developed, expanded or upgraded. These will have a combined capacity of handling 82 million passengers by 2016.