Gradual recovery breathed new life into the global travel sector and its industries in early 2021, following widespread vaccination rates and a reopening of attractions and destinations worldwide. People emerged from over a year of lockdowns, home quarantines, and social distancing with an amplified yearning to travel and reconnect with family and loved ones. This rebirth, however, was marked by an overhaul of expectations, standards, and priorities for industry players looking to remain relevant in a post-pandemic era filled with uncertainty.
As an emerging and promising tourism destination, Saudi Arabia was already on a fast-track paved by Saudi Vision 2030 to become an attractive touristic destination for all types of travelers. Through this vision, the Kingdom announced mega projects valued at $1 trillion since 2016, with nearly $300 billion devoted to infrastructures such as passenger rail networks and a new airport in Riyadh. Over $575 billion was directed towards developing new cities, which, once completed, will deliver more than 100,000 hotel rooms in addition to millions of square meters of real estate. The Kingdom also announced its tourist visa for the first time in 2019, issuing over 400,000 visas between September 2019 and March 2020 before COVID-19 forced the world to come to a near-halt. Now, optimism ensues as the country balances its reopening process with diligent health and safety measures.
In July this year, the Saudi Ministry of Tourism announced opening the Kingdom's doors to fully-vaccinated visitors without the quarantine requirement. Later in August, authorities also announced resuming accepting Umrah visa requests from potential pilgrims around the world. The Kingdom enforces state-of-the-art health and sanitation standards across venues and facilities and manages residents' health and vaccination status in public spaces through its national app "Tawakkalna". More recently, it accepted IATA's Travel Pass app to confirm COVID-19 test results for departing and arriving passengers starting from 30 September 2021.
Hospitality sector leaders read into the massive potential of investing in Saudi Arabia's travel and hospitality market, which includes the unique market of Hajj and Umrah, set to attract 30 million pilgrims annually by 2030. The Kingdom also boasts a growing local tourism sector that sees more Saudi citizens and residents opting for travel and exploration experiences at home, encouraged by nationwide entertainment events and projects. Saudi Arabia's ambitious target of welcoming 100 million visitors by 2030 is split up between 45 million international and 55 domestic tourists, encompassing leisure, business, and religious stays.
Yet, with the future remaining mostly unforeseeable for the sector, as we witness the spread of the delta variant and ongoing revisions of travel policies in several countries; Market leaders are closely listening to the continually shifting expectations and preferences of travelers who are the primary driving force in reviving the travel and hospitality industry. According to a May survey by the travel technology company "Impala" this year, travelers listed their three top priorities when booking accommodation. Those are the thorough and regular disinfection of rooms and facilities, wearing face masks by staff, and a flexible cancellation and rebooking policy that eliminates extra fees. Also, with remote work becoming more commonplace, the gap between leisure and business travel continues to blur, and more travelers are taking their work with them on trips. This translates to more extended stays with more demands and anticipation for all-inclusive accommodation packages.
In the Kingdom, those priorities are being addressed through a swift upgrading of business models and a continued investment in developing unique hotels and properties with novel concepts and comprehensive services. We have complete faith in our astute leadership and their vision to transform the country by seizing even the most significant challenges and transforming them into further innovation and development opportunities.
This resilience serves as an inspiration for all of us, as we set out to fulfill our part in supporting and augmenting Vision 2030's pillar of tourism. We realize that our survival depends on flexibility, rapid response, and meticulous service quality. Our collective success will come from a high level of cooperation and joint efforts between various industry players to regain customers' trust and rise together.
By Sultan Bader Al-Otaibi, Chief Executive Officer Dur Hospitality