By 2030 Saudi Arabia is seeking to attract 100m domestic and international tourists per annum as part of wider efforts to diversify economic growth away from hydrocarbons (see Tourism chapter). This target represents a significant increase in inbound visitors and internal movement within the Kingdom for leisure purposes, and will necessitate upgrades and expansion to transport infrastructure to meet the anticipated increase in demand.

Rising Numbers 

In 2019 Saudi Arabia received 20.3m international visitors, according to data from the World Trade Organisation. As global travel recovers in the wake of the pandemic, the number of international visitors to Saudi Arabia is expected to rise accordingly. In 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic substantially curtailed international travel, the Kingdom received 4m overseas visitors, and it is targeting 12m for 2022. Despite the importance of international tourism, the majority of tourism in the country is currently domestic, with 38m domestic visits anticipated in 2022 alone.

In order to achieve the desired growth in domestic and international tourism, Saudi Arabia is taking steps to improve its transport infrastructure and strategic framework. In June 2021 the Kingdom launched its National Transport and Logistics Strategy under the umbrella of the Vision 2030 development plan. The new strategy seeks to establish the country as a centre for global logistics at the intersection of Asia, Africa and Europe.

One of the strategy’s key performance indicators is to raise Saudi Arabia to fifth place globally in the total volume of transit passengers handled. This strong growth will require significant investment in expanding infrastructure capacity across the aviation segment in particular.

The digitalisation of processes is also a priority, aiming to improve institutional efficiency and boost capacity. For the Umrah beginning on July 30, 2022, all visa holders seeking to complete the pilgrimage were required to request permission via the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah’s new Eatmarna app. The same app is used by Saudi residents seeking permits to complete the Umrah pilgrimage.

Aviation Capacity 

Measures have also been taken to increase the number of flights available to bring visitors to Saudi Arabia. Carriers have been subsidised for flights to the Kingdom in an effort to make these routes more profitable for carriers. In July 2022 a 35% decrease in airport charges was announced to enhance competitiveness with neighbouring countries for flights transiting the Kingdom. Furthermore, regulations were adjusted to open Saudi Arabian airspace to all international carriers that meet its requirements for overflights, including those from countries previously restricted due to geopolitical reasons. This move will enable further integration with interregional transit networks.

In addition to regulatory and policy changes to facilitate inbound travel and increase the competitiveness of flights, measures have been taken to improve and expand physical infrastructure supporting tourism and travel. Projects are under way to extend the main airports in Riyadh and Jeddah.

In April 2022 passenger transit numbers through King Khalid International Airport (KKIA) in Riyadh reached pre-pandemic levels. Terminals 3 and 4 at KKIA are being expanded as part of a $72m project to enable the airport to handle as many as 30m passengers per year upon completion.

Another multi-phase expansion project is being carried out at King Abdulaziz International Airport (KAIA) in Jeddah. In its initial phase, which concluded in 2018, it added a new 810,000-sq-metre passenger terminal, bringing annual passenger-handling capacity to 30m at a cost of $7.2bn. The expansion also added gates, self-service machines and advanced luggage conveyor systems, in addition to integrating the airport into wider transport networks. The planned second and third phases of the project are intended to boost the airport’s annual capacity to 50m by 2025 and 100m by 2035.

Other supporting transport infrastructure will be required for the Kingdom’s to reach its ambitious visitor targets. As part of the KAIA expansion project, the construction of a train station linked to the Haramain High-Speed Rail is helping to ease pressure on the airport and other local infrastructure – particularly during the high-traffic periods of Hajj and Umrah. The 99,000-sq-metre train terminal at KAIA can serve up to six trains every 10 minutes, and makes KAIA the first airport in the region to have a direct rail connection.

The Red Sea International Airport is also under construction and as of July 2022 was slated to open in early 2023 with the capacity to handle 1m passengers per year. It is located within The Red Sea Project on the Tabuk coast, north of Yanbu. The 28,000-sq-km project is one of several giga-projects intended to stimulate tourism demand in the country. Its close proximity to reefs, islands, desert and mountains means that it is perfectly positioned to cater to the luxury ecotourism segment.

Road Upgrades

At the beginning of August 2022 the General Authority for Roads was established and mandated to oversee the implementation of road-related projects under the Kingdom’s National Transport and Logistics Strategy.

The new authority will further strengthen cooperation between different segments of the transport system. Given its mandate, the authority is also expected to improve the construction, maintenance and operation of roads throughout the country by streamlining the organisation of road supervision. This responsibility is shared by multiple entities including royal commissions, municipalities and ministries. Streamlining oversight should also support enhanced investment in the Kingdom’s roads under the purview of this new authority.

While emphasis continues to be placed on international connections for visitors and domestic rail and aviation capacity, roads still play a key role in the movement of people throughout the Kingdom – and particularly for religious and domestic tourists.

In March 2021 two road projects were announced and were under way as of mid-2022. These projects are set to add significant value to the Kingdom’s tourism infrastructure. The first is a motorway project connecting Hail and Al Ula and stretching approximately 40 km; the second is the Al Shimassi Al Qor motorway in Makkah. These will improve access to the UNESCO World Heritage site in Al Ula and Makkah for tourists and pilgrims, respectively.

Rail Expansion

In January 2022 the Kingdom’s minister of investment announced plans to add 8000 km of track to the national rail network, which will triple its size. This includes plans for the Saudi Landbridge Project between Jeddah and Riyadh, and the GCC Railway (see regional analysis) along the coast from Khafji on the Kuwait border to Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE, as well as connections along the Red Sea down to Jazan and Abha. These connections should improve the efficiency and capacity of the movement of people throughout the country, including for tourism purposes.

Metro projects in Jeddah and Riyadh will also serve as tourism infrastructure. The recognition of the importance of rail infrastructure in efficient and environmentally sustainable transport is evident in The Line, part of the $500bn NEOM mega-project under development. The initiative envisions a highspeed railway at the centre of the city’s transport model. This would allow residents and visitors to move across the 170-km-long city in 20 minutes. The design of the city around high-speed rail would remove the need for cars and streets, opening new possibilities for city design. Bids from local and international contractors to build the railway’s tunnels were received in March 2022.

Maritime Links

In December 2021 Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud revealed plans for the new Jeddah Central project, which will redevelop Jeddah’s port and waterfront. This $20bn effort will redesign 5.7 sq km of the historic downtown area of the city, known as Al Balad. The development, expected to include an opera house, sport stadium, marina and beach, as well as hotels and residential units, will also house a luxury cruise terminal. This will contribute to the diversification of Jeddah’s maritime infrastructure and expand access to the Red Sea and Saudi Arabia’s coastal areas for foreign and domestic tourists.

Public transport is being integrated into the Jeddah Central project design. Readily accessible transport will benefit residents and tourists disembarking at the cruise terminal to visit the cultural, entertainment and dining venues in the area. It will also improve the sustainability of a historic area of the city of Jeddah.