In this March 9, 2018 photo, general view showing Riyadh city taken from Mamlaka tower, a 99-story skyscraper, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
DUBAI, April 23 (Xinhua) -- With Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman reforming and opening up the conservative kingdom, hotel operators from east and west are keen on expanding their footprint in the biggest Gulf state which aims to lure guests with desert safari tours and entertainment.
The green-white flag of Saudi Arabia, which has a population of 32.5 million, is visible at every corner of the ongoing 25th edition of the tourism fair Arabian Travel Market (ATM), which kicked off in Dubai on Sunday with the participation of 2,500 international exhibitors.
According to Sohail Pedari, director of global sales at U.S. hotel chain Marriott International, Marriott, which runs nine hotels in Saudi Arabia, is bullish about tourism in the kingdom.
"We will add by 2025 another 25 resorts across the country," he said.
A picture taken on March 31, 2018 shows foreigners walking next to a date farm amidst sandstones in the Khuraiba archaeological site near Saudi Arabia's northwestern town of al-Ula. (AFP photo)
Meanwhile, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), known for brands like Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza, said it signed a master development agreement with Saudi Arabia's Al Hokair Group to build 10 hotels in the next 15 years.
As the largest hospitality operator in Saudi Arabia, IHG is operating 14,000 rooms across the kingdom.
According to the construction research firm BNC, four of the top 10 hotel projects in Gulf countries are based in Saud Arabia, with all hospitality projects in the region valued at 147.1 billion U.S. dollars.
Earlier this month, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, headed by King Salman's oldest son Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, announced that the kingdom would issue individual tourism visas for the first time.
Olivier Harnisch, chief executive officer of Dubai's hotel operator Emaar Hospitality, said Saudi Vision 2030 outlines the important role the hospitality sector plays in creating jobs and diversifying non-oil revenues.
Launched in spring of 2016, Vision 2030 aims to transform one of the world's biggest oil producers into a diversified economy based on a thriving private sector.
"Our strategy is to leverage the growth of the Middle East's tourism sector, which grew 5 percent in 2017, by strengthening the hospitality infrastructure and assuring visitors distinctive guest experiences through our hotel projects," said Harnisch.
"We signed up for the construction of a hotel in Mecca with 1,490 rooms, and more projects are in the pipeline in the kingdom which witnesses rapid changes," he added.
In this March 7, 2018 photo, Nouf Alosaimi, a 29-year-old female Saudidive instructor, right, and Tamer Nasr, an Egyptian diving instructor explore a sandy island in the Red Sea after a dive, near King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
Saudi's capital Riyadh, the Red Sea metropolis Jeddah, the Persian Gulf large city Al-Khobar and the Islamic holiest city Mecca are the prime target locations for hotel operators with Saudi ambitions.
Mecca, however, can only be visited by people who are Muslims as the city hosts the holiest mosque in Islam.
Dana Maercer, an American travel and lifestyle journalist who lives in Dubai, told Xinhua her first trip to Saudi Arabia in February.
"I had no idea Saudi had so much beautiful nature. People talk a lot about desert and I expected quite an empty city feel. It was a world apart," she said.
"We did a fashion shooting with Abayas, the traditional Arab dress for women, at a mountainous place called 'the end of the world,' north of the capital Riyadh," the journalist added.
Thomas Gruendner, vice president of Sales and Marketing with Dubai's JA Resorts and Hotels, is also rosy about the prospect of the Saudi tourism sector.
"Regarding the current developments toward a more liberal kingdom, we could imagine to expand to their country in the future," he noted.
Last Wednesday, the Marvel superhero film "Black Panther" was shown in Riyadh, the first film shown in the kingdom during the past 35 years, following Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman's pledge to shift his country to a "moderate Islam."
Earlier this year, Faisal Bafarat, chief executive officer of Saudi General Entertainment Authority, said the year 2018 will enter the history books as a "game changer" in relation to cultural, entertainment and tourist attractions.
However, Marriott's Pedari pointed out that tour operators should not hold too high expectations at first.
"Regarding international tourism from western countries, "this will develop gradually," Pedari explained.
As women will be allowed to drive for the first time in Saudi Arabia by June, rental vehicle giant Europcar plans to open branches in the kingdom.
"The fact that women will be allowed to drive is definitely a huge opportunity for us," said Muriel Notte, sales manager at Europcar's headquarters in Voisin-le-Bretonneux, France.