As GCC countries adjust to lower oil prices and strive to diversify their economies, one sector in particular looks set to experience exponential growth and play a prominent role: tourism.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Saudi Arabia, which for the first time in its history, is swinging open its doors to non-religious tourism. When the kingdom begins issuing tourist visas – an imminent and significant milestone – the country will begin a new chapter that has the potential to completely transform the kingdom.
Luckily for Saudi, it has an enormous advantage in that it comes with ready-made attractions that will appeal to travellers of all kinds. There were plenty of reminders of this fact at last week’s Arabian Travel Market in Dubai, where promotional posters of the country’s attractions covered every column. From stunning archaeological sites such as Mada’in Saleh (above) to natural wonders like the Al Wahbah volcanic crater and diving in the Red Sea, the country has plenty to offer.
“The kingdom is a very big treasure,” Saudi tourism chief Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz said in a recent interview with AFP. “We’re not just oil traders.”
Saudi Arabia’s mission now – and its challenge – is to promote these sites to a world that is still largely unaware of them, as it did at Arabian Travel Market. Just as important, however, will be the kingdom’s efforts to shrug off a long-standing perception that the country’s tourism sector is limited to religious pilgrims and business travellers with a day or two to spare.
For companies involved in the travel, hospitality and tourism businesses, the opportunities are enormous. Saudia CEO Jaan Albrecht for example, says that he expects “glory days” for the airline as it works to accommodate an influx of non-religious tourists, and many hotel brands have announced significant expansion plans for Saudi Arabia. Chief among them is the UAE-based Rotana, which by the end of this year will have seven hotels in the kingdom, with three more in the pipeline.
For Saudi Arabia, the implications of an enlarged tourism sector are enormous. Aside from the obvious benefits of tourism revenues to GDP, travel and tourism will help alleviate some of the kingdom’s unemployment rate, which in recent years has hovered around an alarming 12 percent. Tackling this issue forms a major part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reforms, and the tourism sector has the potential to create 1.2 million jobs, which primarily will go to Saudis.
Making this dream a reality will, of course, require hard work from all stakeholders involved in the industry, from airlines, to hotels, tour agencies and the government. The visa rules might have relaxed, but as I can personally attest after a painful application process for a work trip, there is much room for improvement.
So it will also require enthusiasm and a heavy dose of informal promotion. There are no better ambassadors for Saudi’s tourism sector than those involved in it, and those who have seen the country’s attractions with their own eyes.
It is up to them now to spread the word.
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