Saudi Arabia, Qatar to add more direct China flights to give post-pandemic tourism a lift

Saudi Arabia and Qatar will add more direct flights with mainland China and Hong Kong as they take advantage of a rebound of Chinese tourists following the Covid-19 pandemic, tourism officials of the two Middle East countries said.

In an exclusive interview with the Post on Wednesday, Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb said there would “absolutely” be more direct flights with China soon.

“We created the airlines and direct flights [from China] to Saudi Arabia to make sure that we are connected,” Al-Khateeb said on the sidelines of the Qatar Economic Forum 2024 in Doha. “Commercial flights [increasing] depends on demands, but the statistics are very promising; we are very optimistic.”

Last month, three of China’s top airlines – Air China, China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines – began direct services from Beijing and Shanghai to the Saudi capital Riyadh.

This followed the launch of direct flights by Saudi Arabian Airlines from Jeddah and Riyadh to Beijing and Guangzhou last year.

Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb says he is “optimisticL that more commercial flights will start up from mainland China and Hong Kong to the Middle East. Photo: AFP

Al-Khateeb also said there were plans in the pipeline for more direct flights between Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong, with details to be announced “very soon”.

“China is very important to us. Therefore we put China at the top of the best [place] to promote Saudi Arabia and advocate the Chinese to Saudi Arabia,” he said.

“For [Chinese] people [who are] in the commercial side and in the oil/gas trade, they know Saudi Arabia very well. But for people who want to travel, [they want to] come and explore other nations’ cultures and history and heritage, and I think we [need to] start promoting Saudi Arabia [to them], but it’s a long-term journey.”

Last year, of the 100 million tourists to Saudi Arabia, nearly 150,000 were Chinese. The kingdom is aiming to attract 5 million Chinese tourists by 2030.

However, Al-Khateeb sidestepped a question over whether Saudi Arabia would follow the examples of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in offering visa-free travel to mainland Chinese tourists, saying any prospective Chinese visitors could apply for visas online “in just a few minutes”.



Southeast Asian aviation industry is booming amid return of tourism

Southeast Asian aviation industry is booming amid return of tourism

Separately, Qatar Tourism chairman Saad Al Kharji, said Qatar and China were in advanced talks over increasing the number of direct flights as the Gulf nation steps up tourism promotion.

“We’re focused on China … to get more tourists from there,” he said on the sidelines of the forum on Wednesday, noting that tourism in Qatar was recovering “very fast”, especially among Chinese tourists, and was “very resilient” and “can grow back again”.

China Southern added a new route between Doha and Guangzhou in April, increasing its total to four direct flights a week. It also joins Cathay Pacific and Xiamen Airlines as the third Chinese code-share partner offering direct services to Doha.

According to a report by Doha News on Monday, tourism accounted for 10.3 per cent of Qatar’s overall economic output in 2023, hitting a record of QAR81.2 billion (US$22 billion).

Meanwhile, figures provided by the Arabian Travel Market held in Dubai last week showed a 54 per cent increase of Chinese tourists visiting the Middle East between the first quarter of 2023 and the first quarter of 2024, with the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia the top destinations.

China’s outbound tourism is expected to recover fully next year, led by travel to the Middle East, according to research by Oxford Economics.

The UAE, especially Dubai, is the regional leader in that sector, but Al-Khateeb, the Saudi tourism minister, said Riyadh was complementing – not competing with – Dubai or Doha.

“That’s why we initiated in Saudi Arabia, two years ago, to have a one unified visa to visit all the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries. We believe that we don’t compete but complement, and will become stronger when we work together.”

He said he had started talks with all the GCC members to host some joint programmes for Expo 2030 and the Asian Winter Games 2029, both of which will be hosted by Saudi Arabia.



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