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Sat 15 Jan 2011 12:00 AM

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Kingdom conference

Hotelier Middle East held its first ever KSA GM Debate in Riyadh last month and unearthed a vibrant, passionate and fledgling hotel industry that is desperate to create the right offering for investors, service providers and guests. Jamie Knights reports

Kingdom conference
Hussein Hatata, AKMC.

A lot of people have a number of opinions and views on Saudi Arabia, the majority of whom have never stepped foot in the Kingdom.

Hotelier decided it was time to give Saudi hoteliers and tourism officials a chance to express their views, talk about what was important to them and join together to move the industry forward.

Far from a restrictive day of cautious ‘yes men’, the attendees and speakers at the inaugural Hotelier Middle East KSA GM Debate provided a lively event where key issues and trends in the Saudi hospitality sector were debated.

From Saudisation targets and visas to security and statistics, the conference, held at the Marriott Riyadh, proved hoteliers, service providers and officials are desperate to get Saudi’s hospitality offering moving in the right direction.

The keynote speech was passionately delivered by director general of licensing and quality at Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), Ahmed Al Eissa.

He lamented the fact that there was still “some debate about the usefulness of the tourism industry in the Kingdom”.

“The state still doesn’t regard tourism as an industry as it doesn’t meet the requirements of an industry from the local point of view,” Al Eissa said.

The long term policy of the SCTA is to promote tourism to reap economic benefits while protecting the environment at the same time.

Al Eissa said that since the inception of the body, there had been an effort to have more of its own say on how it carried out its tasks as set out by the Saudi Council of Ministers.

“One of the sectors we wanted to promote was the amount of investment in tourism as we felt the conditions were inadequate and we wanted to improve the quality of services available,” he asserted.

“All departments had to pool resources to achieve our interconnected goals and we developed a new programme in 2010. First on the agenda was the licensing and quality project.”

The project had the underlying goal of radically improving the tourism and hospitality sector in the ambitious window of two years.

The second focus was the “automation of services” so that information would be made available online, with Al Eissa saying he believed they had achieved “some electronic integration”.

“We also wanted to establish a rapport with investors in tourism and we went about getting feedback about customer satisfaction, which is the ultimate goal,” he said.

“In terms of coordinating with government agencies, we have achieved the licensing and classification of hotels and these will be put out officially in a month. In terms of pricing and user cost parameters, these have been put in place to achieve a pricing structure.”

Despite the bold steps taken by the SCTA, the director general admitted the organisation was still very much “a work in progress” and further developments were needed.

“We believe we have achieved some success and are optimistic. It was a difficult journey to create the classification regime. We visited hotels and evaluated them and we asked the hotels to do their own classification to compare,” he explained.

This led to a constant back and forth between the hotels and the SCTA, which was helpful in fine tuning the parameters for the licensing laws.

“Hotels that aren’t classified will still be able to operate as long as they meet a minimum requirement rating instead — a move designed to help balance the initial negative outcry from hotels and local media over the ratings plans.

“We met with personnel and we found that we could achieve a balance of the interests of the investor and the guest, which seemed to be in conflict at first,” Al Eissa confirmed.

“We left the option for investors in terms of pricing so it is not a rigid structure and there is room to move within it. What we found pleasing was that the objections to our efforts have diminished as plans have been put in place and businesses found that they were in their interests. Furthermore, the backlash in local media is diminishing now.”

While concessions have been made to keep as many happy as possible, this does not mean the SCTA will not be tough in its efforts to improve the hospitality sector.

Al Eissa said the commission believed it was important to carry out auditing programmes to “stamp out violations”.

While enforcement is currently not in place, he said it was coming and unacceptable businesses would be forced to close.

The overriding message from Al Eissa was the need for there to be a partnership between the private sector and the commission to achieve their common goals.

He said an annual conference for tourism with free courses was held, but despite having around 5000 tourism-related businesses in the Kingdom, only seven attended the last conference.

“This was not created for our (SCTA) benefit, but for the industry as a whole and the lack of businesses interested was a huge disappointment,” he stated.

“Our job is to remove obstacles and it is in the interest of businesses to attend and I call all businesses to adhere to the policies and put in more interest to achieve what is best for the industry as a whole.”

He concluded that the KSA GM Debate was the first time managers and executives had got together, adding he believed the event was “an important opportunity”.

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