Saudi Arabia, China’s tourists and Sino-Saudi relations

Tuesday, June 13, 2023


Saudi Arabia and China’s strengthening relationship is increasingly important to both Riyadh and Beijing as the kingdom pushes ahead with Vision 2030 and China with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Saudi Arabia’s geoeconomic pivot to the East and China’s growing footprint in the kingdom’s economy highlight how bilateral ties have strengthened in recent years.

Synergies between Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia’s ambitious economic diversification agenda unveiled in 2016, and the BRI offer the potential to further connect the two countries in the years to come.

Tourism is a pillar of Saudi Vision 2030, and China ranked number one globally as a source of tourists in 2019, with Chinese people making 155 million outbound trips and spending more than $250bn while vacationing outside of China.

Because of the COVID pandemic, the numbers for 2020 and 2021 dropped down to 20 and 26 million tourists, respectively.

The Saudi government seeks to bring in an annual $46bn in tourism revenue by the end of this decade, and it can achieve much growth with more Chinese vacationers coming to Saudi Arabia.

In 2019, just before the COVID pandemic caused Saudi Arabia’s tourism revenues to plummet, the kingdom’s receipts from this sector reached $19.85bn – the highest ever.

Growing together?

As China recovers from the major economic setbacks caused by the country’s stringent zero-COVID policies, Saudi Arabia is focused on tapping into its tourism market as the number of Chinese travelling overseas as tourists will naturally rise.

In March, Saudi Tourism Authority CEO Fahd Hamidaddin met with China’s Vice Minister of Culture and Tourism Rao Quan to discuss launching joint tourism initiatives aimed at helping the kingdom attract nearly four million Chinese tourists a year by 2030.

Beijing sees Vision 2030’s success as extremely important to China’s own interests in the Middle East.

As the Saudi economy diversifies, there is a growing entertainment sector offering concerts, cultural fairs, sports events, car shows, and so on while Neom – a planned megacity in northwestern Saudi Arabia, which is supposed to house up to 2 million people by 2030 – can potentially lure many tourists to the kingdom.

Regional and international competition

There is much to say about competition for Chinese tourists. If Saudi Arabia attracts more, it could undermine the number of Chinese tourists fellow Gulf states and European countries are attracting so far.

Within the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), intensified competition for Chinese tourists could put Beijing in a challenging position in terms of its “hedging” strategy aimed at balancing Beijing’s good relations with all Gulf countries by avoiding moving too close to any one country.

But experts believe that this will not inevitably be a zero-sum game of competition for the Gulf nations.

Rail and visa schemes could serve to increase connectivity between Saudi Arabia and the other five GCC member states, which may allow Gulf countries to spread the incoming tourism wealth around the region in a way that was more difficult to do in the past.

Tourism’s importance to Sino-Saudi relations

Most discussions about the kingdom’s multidimensional relationship with China do not concern tourism, which is not the most important aspect of ties between the two nations.

The most important aspects of Sino-Saudi relations appear to be oil, trade, and sensitive technology.

Greater tourism flows from China to Saudi Arabia will likewise have a social and cultural impact in the kingdom.

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