Saudi Arabia is diving into never-before-explored realms with its ongoing social and economic reformations. The country’s tourism industry is ever-ready to enchant travellers eager to discover all the Kingdom has to offer. Aleksandra Wood writes.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is broadening its tourism sector and its bountiful offering day by day, in a bid to move forward towards realising its nationwide Vision 2030. One of the goals of this game-changing economic diversification strategy is to welcome an impressive total of 30 million holidaymakers per year.
As this cultural hub steadily reforms its once steadfast traditions to open its gilded gates to travellers the world over, the nation in its entirety is joining hands to bring to light the historical beauty of the country.
Sharing particularly optimistic sentiments with TTG was area general manager – Middle East, Africa and Turkey, The Ascott Limited (Ascott), Vincent Miccolis: “The Government’s Vision 2030 strategy has had a positive effect on the hospitality industry. We are witnessing a notable change from the swift introduction of various initiatives and the lift of the ban on women driving to the introduction of cinemas and concerts with mixed gender admission, in addition to professional wrestling. The renewed efforts to increase the Saudi workforce, and the push to have more females in the workplace, are also notable changes.”
Miccolis further noted that through these combined initiatives, Ascott’s properties across Riyadh and Jeddah have seen a rather promising increase in occupancy this year, between 10-30 per cent. Domestic travellers can be accredited to these noteworthy increases, with Ascott noting an eight per cent spike on domestic arrivals compared to the previous year.
Meanwhile, the Kingdom’s hospitality industry is as active as ever, with the nation having witnessed the inauguration of 23 properties, whilst a further 118 remain in construction, 43 are in the final planning stage and 63 are in the planning stage. Thus, a total of 226 hotels in the pipeline, along with 393 existing properties, reflect the industry’s confidence in achieving the goals of the country’s Vision 2030.
Saudi Arabia’s touristic jewels are making their presence known on travellers’ maps, as noted by country director of finance – KSA, Shaza Hotels, Yasser Arafa: “Domestic tourism is noticing a year-on-year rise, with Makkah and Madina still the most popular cities. Newer areas, such as, Maddien Saleh, Abaha, Tabouk and Al Taief, are also witnessing increased footfall.”
Elaborating on this was The Ascott Limited’s Miccolis: “We are seeing a large increase in staycations and visitors from neighbouring regions, creating alternative demand from that of our corporate visitors and residents. Two tourism hotspots that are on the rise include Al Khobar and Abha in the Southwest, with both areas bolstering their presence on the domestic tourism front. Both regions are set by the sea and enjoy a more laid-back environment.”
Ascott is set to open its first property in Al Kohbar – Ascott Corniche Al Kohbar – in the first quarter of 2019, along with Citadines Abha in the capital of the Aseer Province in 2020.
The tourism industry in the Kingdom is welcoming dramatic changes and is continuously evolving throughout its exciting journey to economic diversification. Major tourism projects and investments happening in the country, such as the Red Sea project and futuristic megacities such as Neom and Al-Qiddiya, will ultimately be the driving forces behind achieving this goal.
The Red Sea project is envisaged as a resort spanning a lagoon of 50 untainted islands, between the cities of Umlaj and Al-Wajh. It stands within arm’s reach of one of the Kingdom’s most spectacular nature reserves and dormant volcanoes in Harrat Al-Rahat, graced by a backdrop of the ancient ruins at Mada’in Saleh. The first phase of the project, which will include development of hotels, luxury residential units and all logistical infrastructure, such as air, land and sea transport hubs, is expected to conclude by the final quarter of 2022.
Meanwhile, construction of the colossal Al-Qiddiya entertainment city project announced earlier this year is already moving forward at a gracious pace. The landmark entertainment hub, located southwest of Riyadh, will house high-end theme parks, motorsport facilities and a safari park.
A jaw-dropping roster of facilities can be expected from this one-of-a-kind project, inclusive of amusement parks; sports tracks; auto and motorcycle racing areas on desert and asphalt tracks; indoor ski slopes; water parks; natural attractions; and cultural and heritage events. The project will also comprise resorts, hotels, restaurants and residential units.
The first phase of the project will officially open in 2022, with its final phase ending in 2035.
Miccolis revealed: “Various entertainment centres in shopping malls, a fully-fledged entertainment complex, concerts, festivals and an opera house have also been announced, so there are significant plans in the pipeline to cement the country as a tourism destination.”
CUE SAUDI ARABIA
Travellers eager to savour a taste of Saudia Arabia’s overflowing culture were previously limited. However, the light at the end of the tunnel is emerging, as the Government relaxes its visa policies for outside wanderers.
General manager, The Ritz-Carlton, Riyadh, Gerrit Graef elucidated: “As the Kingdom starts issuing tourist visas, albeit with some restrictions, forecast in terms of tourist arrivals and visitors is expected to increase, thus benefiting hotel and accommodation providers.
“The opening of tourist visas not only helps Saudi Arabia boost arrivals from pilgrims visiting Makkah, but also diverse tourists who are attending social and entertainment activities that are scheduled to happen in the country,” added Graef.
And speaking of social and entertainment activities, in 2018 alone, Saudi Arabia was poised to host roughly 5,000 events, in order to encourage foreign visitors and augment tourist spending.
Graef said: “Apart from being the leading religious tourism destination in the world through Makkah, Saudi Arabia has started to welcome unconventional and ground-breaking events attracting both locals and residents.
“Recently, our hotel collaborated with the Saudi Film Council and the General Culture Authority as one of the sponsors of the Kingdom’s first-ever movie premier event, Gerard Butler’s ‘Hunter Killer’. This month, the Kingdom is hosting the international Formula E Championship, with a lot more entertainment events in the pipeline happening across major cities of the Kingdom,” he concluded.
As the nation’s hospitality industry and touristic offering blossoms, so do its inhabitants. Saudisation remains at the forefront of the country’s agenda, with efforts to highlight Saudi talent and drive Saudi youth to explore the industry at an all-time high.
Ascott is a testament to this, with the brand having placed an unwavering focus on identifying young, motivated Saudi nationals – both male and female – and training them to constantly strive for higher ranks. According to Miccolis, Ascott’s guest service departments are graced by many Saudi female employees, which has proven complimentary to the frontline services at its properties.
Saudi Arabia is taking calculated steps, fortified by game-changing developments, to reform its traditional customs and introduce its impressive offering to the world, while keeping the best interest for its people in mind.
“The Government is making coordinated efforts to not only diversify from oil dependence, but make meaningful changes to the traditional ways of doing business,” explained Arafa of Shaza Hotels. “More leisure related initiatives, such as cultural events and Al-Qiddiya entertainment city, indicate that steps are being taken to present the Kingdom as a more leisure-friendly destination. This will enhance the position of the hospitality industry in the Kingdom and generate further demand.”
With touristic developments, social reformations and economic diversification in tow, Saudi Arabia is poised to become an unstoppable cultural wonder for travellers from around the globe.