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DUBAI: Saudi Arabia aims to exceed 70 million tourist visits this year after drawing 62 million last year, a tourism official said on Monday, underlining the conservative kingdom concerted push to boost its travel industry.

Saudi Arabia is a major religious destination with millions visiting Islam’s two holy cities of Makkah and Medina annually to perform the hajj and umrah pilgrimages.

The kingdom has in recent years started to promote leisure travel as part of a strategy aimed at diversifying the economy away from oil, spearheaded by de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Visits were up 130% in the first quarter of 2022 compared with the last quarter of 2019, Saudi Tourism Authority CEO Fahd Hamidaddin told Reuters in an interview held on the sidelines of industry event Arabian Travel Market held in Dubai.

“I think our record-high domestic travel was last year. And on general recovery of total travel, we outperformed the globe, we outperformed the region in terms of recovery - we reached 72% of pre-pandemic levels,” he said.

“I’ll say this for the first time…We are witnessing over 130% versus pre-pandemic levels,” Hamidaddin said, adding this pertained to the leisure tourism segment only and did not include religious travel.

Saudi Arabia expects to open the doors of several tourism-focused projects over the next few years, including the Red Sea project, a high-end development that will feature resorts on islands and inland.

“We’re very pleased to see Dubai successful, just like Jordan, just like Egypt, all recovering and growing. And we want to play our role - and we believe that our success is success for everyone,” Hamidaddin said, addressing a question about regional competition.

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