Saudi Arabia ready for UK and Irish trades

by Steve Hartridge

Saudi Arabia is poised to become one of the world's leading tourism destinations by 2030, a trade audience was told this week.

A ‘Journeys in Arabia’ webinar, featuring speakers that included representatives from the country's tourism authority, author and photographer Levison Wood and Abercrombie and Kent founder Geoffrey Kent, helped launch the destination to UK and Irish travel companies.

Tourism, which was already starting to take off before the pandemic (with the kingdom issuing around 400,000 of its new e-visas to foreign travellers in the six months up until September 2019), had the potential to create jobs, attract investors and transform society, the audience was told.

Haitham Mattar, Senior Advisor for Saudi Tourism Authority, said the country's Vision 2030 growth strategy - to attract 100 million visits by 2030 - was ambitious but achievable with the plans already in the pipeline to improve infrastructure and introduce tourism projects.

Key to this is a Red Sea tourism project which includes Coral Bloom, a nature-inspired luxury resort complex on Saudi Arabia's Shurayrah Island - one of 22 islands selected for development. The dolphin-shaped complex will feature 11 hotels. Work is also underway on new transport links including 80 kilometres of roads, highways and junctions to connect the destination and a new international airport.

Mattar said 800,000 additional hotel rooms would be needed to cater to the hoped-for demand, and the tourism plans would help create two million jobs.

The UK and Ireland had been identified as one of the top five markets (as it is for most other countries in the Gulf region).

"The UK market is resilient, and travellers take multiple holidays - it will be one of the first markets to bounce back," he said.

Saudi Arabia would appeal because it can deliver on four key tenets of tourism: natural attractions, cultural and heritage sites; beach and sand; outdoor adventures and wellness offerings, he said.

Virginia Messina, the World Travel and Tourism Council's Managing Director, said Saudi Arabia was already starting to see the impact of the country's Vision 2030 strategy, with a 14% growth rate in visitors 2019.

“Travel and tourism employs more than 50% women and youth, which shows it has the power to transform communities and be a driver for social change," she said.

She also noted that Saudi Arabia had been one of the first countries to come on-board with the WTTC's Safetravels Stamp, which is a mark of confidence in the new safety, health and hygiene protocols put in place by hotels, self-catering accommodation, restaurants, rental car companies, attractions and adventure excursions and other hospitality sectors.

Geoffrey Kent, Founder and Co-Chairman of Abercrombie & Kent, visited Saudi Arabia as recently as December last year, 38 years after his first visit. He said that as far back as1972 he "saw a huge opportunity for tourism", even though Riyadh then had just the single hotel (an Intercontinental).

He said he remained "wildly enthusiastic" about the destination and planned to personally lead a couple of A&K tours there later in the year.

"From the Highlands in the southeast to AlUla, a World Heritage site in the north-west, to the Red Sea Riviera which offers "some of the best diving in the world," there is "so much to do there," he said.

Kent said A&K would set up its own Destination marketing Company (DMC) in the country, to assist UK tour operators in planning itineraries, and was excited about working with the many emerging young Saudi entrepreneurs embracing the tourism sector.

He said A&K would be looking to offer a tour that incorporated AlUla with Petra in Jordan, and perhaps an 'Incense Route' incorporating Oman.

"I have been to 158 countries, but Saudi offers something really new. The people themselves are so friendly. I am looking forward to showing our clients what it has to offer...they like new things and Saudi Arabia offers plenty of these," he said. 

Deepak Nangla of Brightsun Travel noted that Saudi Arabia has "done a great job" in recent years of bringing three- four-and five-star hotels around Islamic pilgrimage sites of and Mecca but now needed to expand accommodation to other areas in the country to broaden appeal.

Saudi Tourism Authority's Haitham Mattar said the country is currently looking into developing an 'Umra-Plus' touring option between Mecca and Medina that would highlight not just a "spiritual trip" but "other things" between the two religious sites. Trade partners on the ground in Saudi Arabia are "working tirelessly to offer these experiences," he said.

Saudi Arabia is set to host its first-ever Formula One Grand Prix race this November, around the streets of Jeddah. The race will be just the second full night race on the Formula One calendar and the second 'street race' after Monaco.

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