By Matthew Martin
Saudi Arabia has set itself the target of attracting 70 million international tourists a year by 2030, as it looks to accelerate an $800-billion plan to become a travel hotspot and one of the world's most visited countries.
The kingdom has raised its goal from the previous one of 50 million visitors, Tourism Minister Ahmed Al Khateeb said in an interview. This year's figure will end up being between 25 and 30 million, he said.
It's "a very reasonable target" for the end of the decade given the sheer investment underway to create more resorts and a new airline to bring people to the country, he said.
Saudi Arabia, which until 2019 was largely closed off to tourists except Muslim pilgrims, is spending huge sums building hotels and resorts along the Red Sea coast. It's also developing historical sites including the Al Ula desert region and Diriyah, the ancestral home of the Saudi ruling family.
The push for more holidaymakers is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ambition to diversify the oil-dependent, $1.1-trillion economy.
The de facto ruler wants tourism to account for 10% of gross domestic product by 2030, helping earn foreign currency from sources other than petroleum exports.
Al Khateeb said the government had also revised up its 2030 goal for total annual tourist trips - a figure that includes local travel;ers - to 150 million from 100 million.
Saudi Arabia hosted an event marking United Nations' World Tourism Day on Wednesday.
It included the presence of the Israel's Tourism Minister Haim Katz in what was the highest-level official visit by an Israeli official to the kingdom yet.
The move was a further sign of warming ties between the countries, which are negotiating a deal with the US that would see them establish formal diplomatic ties.
Still, the Israeli minister was in Riyadh because the UN "invites all member states," Al Khateeb said. "They came because of that, regardless of whether we have a diplomatic relationship or not."
Earlier this year, Israeli citizens were prevented from attending a UN tourism ceremony in Saudi Arabia honouring town and villages - including Muslim-majority Kfar Kama in Israel.
The UN invited the Israelis to attend, but Saudi Arabia never issued visas.