Destination KSA

Saudi Arabia

Fiercely focused on its tourism industry, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is working to strengthen and diversify its touristic offering to boost its economy. Tatiana Tsierkezou investigates.

With the sudden dip in oil prices impacting Saudi Arabia’s economy, it comes as no surprise that the country is working on diversifying its non-oil sectors, and more notably, its tourism industry.

In April this year, the Saudi Vision 2030 was unleashed in order to capitalise on the KSA’s alternative strengths, one of which is tourism. The Vision is based on three, clear-cut pillars: a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation.

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Explaining the Saudi Vision 2030 exclusively to TTG was area general manager, The Ascott Limited – GCC, Vincent Miccolis: “The first pillar, ‘The Holy Cities’, envisions the expansion and redevelopment of Makkah and Madinah and will continue to drive pilgrims into the Holy cities through Jeddah.

“The second pillar, ‘diversification’, shifts its focus on building a diversified strategy to boost tourism. With visa regulations being eased within the GCC nations, domestic tourism is witnessing an uphill growth. The third pillar, ‘global hub and epicentre of trade and gateway to the world – King Abdullah Economic City’, is expected to provide over one million jobs to nationals and expatriates,” noted Miccolis.

Speaking of the significance of the Vision was regional director of marketing, Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh, Tarek Bekhiet: “We will definitely capitalise on the Saudi Vision 2030, which expresses long-term goals and expectations reflected upon how to utilise the country’s strengths and capabilities. As part of the vision, the country aims to leverage its unique strategic location, connecting different continents and being a geographic and business hub. This will make the Saudi Kingdom ‘an epicentre of trade and the gateway to the world’.”

According to statistics released by the ‘Tourism in Saudi Arabia Report 2016’, the Kingdom’s tourism industry was valued at $21.33 billion as of December 2015, with it having contributed 2.7 per cent and 5.4 per cent to the total GDP and non-oil GDP respectively in 2015. Already a hub for religious travel, all tourism movers and shakers are on a mission to increase visitor numbers and are investing on bolstering the industry with several infrastructural developments and changes to rules and regulations to make the destination more accessible to tourists.

Speaking about these initiatives was director of sales and marketing of the recently soft-opened Assila Hotel, A Rocco Forte Hotel, Walid Haidar: “The Kingdom is working hard to facilitate the tourism industry and to formulate regulations to ease the entry of tourists. We are seeing numerous infrastructure projects that will facilitate the growth of the sector. The expansion of King Abdulaziz Airport in Jeddah, the new railway connecting Jeddah, Makkah and Madinah, and the redesign of Makkah will greatly benefit tourism.”

Meanwhile, CEO, Elaf Group, Ziyad bin Mahfouz explained that the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) has also been implementing initiatives to boost tourism numbers: “There are many programmes that the SCTH has been [introducing] to engage the tourism sector such as business tourism through MICE and health and wellness tourism. Tourism for religious purposes remains a major priority for the sector as well as the redevelopment of key heritage sites that have historical significance for the country.”

Bin Mahfouz explained that Elaf is also actively working towards the nation’s vision by ensuring its targets are aligned with the country’s goals.

“As we embark on new projects to meet the growing demand in the sector, we continue to innovate our offerings in line with the highest international standards. Recently, we launched a marketing tour in key markets including Istanbul, Turkey, Cairo, Egypt, Casablanca, Morocco and Makassar, Indonesia to promote attractive tourism packages and further spread awareness of what visitors can explore when in Saudi.”

IN WITH THE NEW

Highlighting the nationwide drive to enhance Saudi Arabia’s tourism industry is the incredible influx of hotel openings.

Next year Elaf Group will be inaugurating another fivestar property in Jeddah as well as four-star hotels in Riyadh and the Eastern Region, while The Ascott Limited is ever-working on boosting its collection of hotels, with the company’s debut property in Riyadh, Ascott Rafal Olaya, opening this month; as well as The Ascott Villas Riyadh (November 2017) and The Ascott Corniche Al Khobar (2018).

The KSA also welcomed is first Aloft-branded hotels this year, with the opening of Aloft Riyadh and most recently, the Aloft Dhahran.

Explaining why the Aloft brand is the perfect fit for the KSA was general manager, Aloft Dhahran, Titus Rossier: “Aloft Hotels are designed for the evolving needs of the GCC business traveller by offering modern style, great value and high-tech features. Vision 2030’s economic diversification will see many consultants visiting the Eastern Province looking for a no-hassle hotel to support their needs. We do our part for Vision 2030 by driving tourism and of course supporting the local economy.”

Another hotel chain that is aggressively expanding its footprint in the country is Rotana – a company that believes Saudi Arabia holds its most growth potential.

Area vice president – KSA, Sudan, Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan and Bahrain, Rotana Hotels, Mohamad Haj Hassan told TTG: “We have a very aggressive expansion strategy in place globally and across the region. Saudi Arabia has always been a prime market for us and we are excited about the growth witnessed by the region’s hospitality sector. Today hospitality is regarded as the economic sector in the Kingdom with the greatest potential for development and for becoming an engine for job growth to benefit young Saudis.”

Hassan emphasised the important introduction of the Centro by Rotana brand to the KSA and added that four additional hotels of this calibre will be opening in the country. These include: Centro Waha, Riyadh; Centro Olaya, Riyadh; Centro Corniche, Al Khobar; and Centro Salama, Jeddah. Centro Shaheen, which opened in October 2016, is Rotana’s seventh Centro property in the region and its third hotel in the Kingdom.

But the country is not only witnessing a spike in hotel openings in recent months. It is also catching wind of various already up-and-running entities making changes to their offering, in an effort to better accommodation the eclectic needs of those travelling to the KSA. According to general manager, Makkah Hilton & Towers, Ibrahim Alfati, Makkah is currently enhancing its two major hotel projects: Abraj Albait – a mega complex of seven skyscraper hotels that serves to modernise the city for pilgrims; and Jabal Omar – one of the largest real estate developments in the Middle East made up of 37 towers and 28 hotels (six of which are projected to be managed by Hilton Worldwide).

POSITIVE FORECASTS

Looking ahead to the New Year, a determined and positive outlook emanates from the key players of Saudi Arabia’s tourism industry.

Elaf Group’s bin Mahfouz told TTG: “Having established a firm rooting in the hospitality sector for more than 35 years now, catering primarily to tourism for religious purposes segment, we are very optimistic about the growth in the sector in the coming years, especially now with strong support from the government sector. The projected increase of pilgrim visitors in the next four years is 30 million by 2020. To accommodate such a huge number of tourists requires a sense of commitment from our side as a business to ensure that services are provided efficiently and on par with international standards.”

Also confident with what the future holds, Bekhiet of Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh expressed that despite the economic downturn, he believes that the luxury property will achieve promising results based on the strong brand leadership that has been established, along with its highly personalised services that appeal to the upscale business or leisure traveller.

Echoing this positivity, Alfati of Makkah Hilton & Towers told TTG: “The year 2017 will be another good year. We are targeting realistic growth driven by governmental efforts in growing the number of pilgrims to Makkah, however, our team efforts are focused on upgrading our services in order to maintain our premium position among Makkah hotels, through providing an exceptional spiritual experience.”

He added that the property will focus on increasing occupancy, despite the boom in the supply of rooms in the Holy City; boosting sales efforts through trips and exhibitions; and exploring new markets such as Morocco, Tunisia and Senegal.

Finally, Miccolis of The Ascott Limited concluded: “Our main focus will be on the second and third tier cities in the KSA that show a great deal of ambition when it comes to supporting the building of mega projects. Our goal is to have 20 properties in Saudi Arabia by 2020, the largest region for us within the Middle East. We’re also focusing on monopolising the hotel apartment sector within the cities of Jeddah and Riyadh.”

Tackling the Saudi Vision 2030 with a unified tourism front, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is resolute in its plan, and will stop at nothing to achieve it.