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Saudi Arabia and Thailand mend relations, boosting tourism

image courtesy of A.J.Wood

Restored relations between Saudi Arabia and Thailand, sees lifted travel bans and resumed travel between the 2 countries.

Saudi Arabia is playing an increasingly more prominent role in global tourism, such as at the recent hosting of the 116th United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Executive Council Meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The UNWTO meeting focused on boosting the recovery of global tourism, and tourism is a crucial focus for the kingdom’s leaders. Saudi Arabia’s outbound tourism market is set to exceed US$10.86 billion in 2021 and is expected to generate US$25.49 billion from international tourist arrivals by 2027 – an increase of 235%.

The number of outbound tourists from Saudi Arabia will quickly recover, growing 15% annually. Many younger travelers are motivated to visit a destination on their bucket list.

With the recent reopening of diplomatic relations between Saudi and Thailand, the Saudi Arabian government has lifted the travel ban on its citizens to Thailand and allowed Thais to enter the kingdom, ending a diplomatic crisis dating back to 1989.

116th United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) Executive Council Meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

On February 27, 2022, Saudi Arabian Airlines launched the first direct flight from Jeddah to Bangkok.

The announcement of the restoration of relations came after a meeting between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. They visited Riyadh for an official visit in January 2022. It was the first government-level visit between the two countries in more than 30 years.

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Saudi Arabia had imposed the ban following the “blue diamond” affair of 1989 when a Thai national broke into the palace of Prince Faisal bin Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in Riyadh and stole close to 100 kg of jewelry including a blue diamond. Soon afterwards, 4 Saudi diplomats in Bangkok were shot dead in 2 different attacks on the same night, and 2 days later, a Saudi businessman was killed.

Saudi Arabia’s outbound market in a recent report shows that domestic and intra-Saudi Arabian travel is becoming more popular. For long-haul travel, Saudi Arabians head to South Africa, India, the United States, the United Kingdom, Singapore, Malaysia, Switzerland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is the top source market for outbound tourism in Saudi Arabia, followed by Switzerland and Turkey.

Many Saudi travelers are willing to travel to new areas outside the Middle East, creating significant commercial prospects. With the resumption of travel between Saudi Arabia and Thailand, it is expected the southeast Asia kingdom will be a popular choice for Saudi nationals.

Passengers emerge at Bangkok’s  Suvarnabhumi airport after disembarking from the Saudi Arabian Airlines flight from Jeddah via Riyadh on February 27, 2022

2020 turned out to be a catastrophic year for Saudi Arabia’s outbound tourism due to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. However, the tourism industry has recovered.

Thailand expects bookings from Saudi Arabia will surge. More than 200,000 people are expected to visit in 2022 with the resumption of direct flights and mutual tourism promotions.

Thai Airways International (THAI) has resumed direct flights between Bangkok and Riyadh, and flights from Saudi Arabia to Thailand started in February.

Thai tourism authorities have set a lofty goal of 20 billion baht from an expected 200,000 Saudi tourists this year. Thai workers are also being screened for jobs in Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi Arabian tourists have high potential and are a target group under the medical hub and wellness tourism policy,” Thai government sources were quoted at the time and announced the ministry was drafting a memorandum of understanding on Thai-Saudi Arabian cooperation on mutual tourism promotion.

Almosafer is the biggest OTA in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and the top 3 in market share for the Middle East and North Africa. Search statistics for Thailand on Almosafer’s website increased by 470% before surging 1,100% when flights to Bangkok went back on sale following the 30-year hiatus.

The Ministry of Tourism and Sports, along with Thai officials, held discussions with the Saudi Ministry of Tourism concerning visa extensions for Thai Muslims traveling to Saudi Arabia on pilgrimages. Thai pilgrims should have their visas extended for their visits to Saudi Arabia. The draft had already been sent to Saudi Arabia for consideration.

With the removal of entry restrictions to combat COVID-19, the number of Saudi visitors could climb to 500,000 in the coming years.

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Andrew J. Wood - eTN Thailand

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