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Visitors tour the rock-hewn tombs of Madain Saleh near the city of Al Ula. The authorities eventually want to attract up to 2 million visitors annually to Al Ula. Image Credit: Reuters

Cairo: Saudi Arabia aims to receive 25 million foreign tourists in 2023 as part of efforts to diversify the kingdom’s economy and bolster its tourism industry, a senior government official has said.

Saudi Minister of Tourism Ahmad Al Khatib added that the kingdom is expected to hold the world’s 17th rank in terms of tourist attraction, having drawn 16.5 million tourists last year, an increase of 94 per cent compared to the pre-epidemic time.

The overall tourism spending last year amounted to SR185 billion, a 93 per cent increase against 2021, the official added in a monthly online meeting on tourism performance.

The kingdom, he added, has exceeded the 2019 figures to emerge as the leading country in registering record numbers among the Group of 20 (G20) countries. G20, a forum of the world’s largest economies, comprises 19 countries and the European Union.

According to Al Khatib, the number of jobs provided by the tourism sector in Saudi Arabia reached 880,000 in 2022, up 15 per cent against the previous year while female Saudi workers accounted for 44 per cent of the overall workforce in the sector.

“The ministry is seeking to provide 1 million jobs in different activities of the tourism sector, a matter that requires establishing training institutes, building and developing training programmes and services in hospitality and tourism,” he added. Last month, Al Khatib disclosed that Saudi Arabia plans to build more than 700,000 hotel rooms by 2030 and that his ministry aims to develop the sector to raise its contribution to reach 10 per cent of the kingdom’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030.

Tourism’s contribution to GDP reached 4 per cent at the end of last year, against 3 per cent in 2019, he added.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has sought to draw more foreign tourists to the country, offering a set of facilities including the issuance of tourist visas on arrival or online for citizens of several nationalities.

Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia launched the stopover transit visa, allowing air passengers to obtain an entry visa.

The four-day visa allows the holder to perform Umrah (minor pilgrimage), visit the Prophet Mohammad’s Mosque in the holy city of Medina and tour tourism sites in the kingdom.

The free-of-charge transit visa is issued instantly with the passenger’s ticket and is valid for three months.

Passengers can apply for the transit visa through the electronic platforms of the Saudi national carriers, Saudia Airlines and Flynas.

A digital visa will be issued immediately and sent to the beneficiary via e-mail.