NEW DELHI: The number of Indians traveling to Saudi Arabia has grown by 50 percent following a series of strategic initiatives in 2023, the Kingdom’s tourism authority said, as it participated in India’s main international travel show over the weekend.

The 2024 edition of the South Asian Travel and Tourism Exchange — Asia’s leading platform for the tourism and hospitality industry — took place in Noida in the Indian capital region on Feb. 22-24.

The Saudi Tourism Authority established a huge pavilion at the venue, promoting the Kingdom’s ancient heritage sites and new tourism destinations.

“This marks Saudi Tourism Authority’s third year participating in one of the most prominent tourism trade shows in South Asia,” Alhasan Al-Dabbagh, STA president for Asia-Pacific markets, told Arab News.

“SATTE has been successful as it gave us the opportunity to strengthen our partnerships, share insights and grow together with our trade partners with one unified goal, which is to bring Saudi to life and make its experiences and packages bookable.”

The Saudi exhibition this year was bigger than in the fair’s previous editions, also reflecting the increasing success of its promotional strategy in India.

“We hosted over 1.5 million Indian inbound travelers in 2023, making a substantial 50 percent increase in visitation from 2022. This surge is attributed to strategic initiatives, including a successful partnership with the Indian Premier League, (and) enhanced air connectivity,” Al-Dabbagh said.

Alhasan Al-Dabbagh, STA president for Asia-Pacific markets, speaks at the South Asian Travel and Tourism Exchange on Feb. 22, 2024. (SATTE)

In February last year, the STA signed a partnership agreement with the IPL — the men’s T20 franchise that is the world’s most-watched cricket league — becoming its official sponsor and tapping into a strong sports fanbase in both countries.

Saudi and Indian airlines have also added new flights in 2023, connecting Indian cities directly to the Kingdom, while immigration procedures have been streamlined with additional visa-processing centers.

“Last year, we opened 10 VFS Tasheel offices across India, with plans to expand into tier-two cities. We launched our first-ever free 96-hour stopover visa early last year in collaboration with SAUDIA and flynas, our national carriers,” Al-Dabbagh said, adding that it is now “easier than ever” for Indians to visit the Kingdom.

Indians have been drawn mainly to the growing number of cultural attractions, with archaeological works in full swing and the development of leisure infrastructure.

The top destinations are currently Madinah, Riyadh, Jeddah, and AlUla — one of the Kingdom’s six UNESCO World Heritage sites.

“Saudi has been promoting its rich cultural and historical heritage through key initiatives like the restoration and preservation of heritage sites such as AlUla and Diriyah and the development of cultural festivals and events,” Al-Dabbagh said.

“To offer Indian travelers a plethora of accommodation options and recreational activities tailored to their preferences, we have invested heavily in developing tourism infrastructure, including hotels, resorts, and entertainment facilities, to accommodate the growing number of visitors.”

Tourism is a booming sector in Saudi Arabia under the Vision 2030 diversification plan. A key part of the vision is to position the Kingdom as a dynamic, diverse, year-round tourism destination and market that will contribute 10 percent of the gross domestic product by 2030.

In the three two years, India has emerged as a key tourism source market, and the STA expects it to become its largest in the next few years.

“By 2030, India is anticipated to become the number one inbound market for Saudi, underlining the growing importance of Indian tourists,” Al-Dabbagh said.

“Our aim is to welcome 7.5 million Indian visitors by 2030, aligning with our ambitious goals to enhance and diversify the tourism sector while fostering stronger connections between the two nations.”