A travel-experience company has Saudi Arabia’s nature and culture in its sights

Millions of residents and citizens across the Kingdom will be staying put for the foreseeable future and local tourism is set to take off. (Supplied)
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Updated 10 August 2020

A travel-experience company has Saudi Arabia’s nature and culture in its sights

  • The Traveling Panther aims to bring the Kingdom’s natural wonders and cultural heritage alive through local narratives
  • The initial focus of the five female Saudi founders is on the Kingdom’s Eastern Province, Asir and the coast of Tabuk

DUBAI: Although the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the global travel, tourism and hospitality industry to a halt, five young Saudi women have found a silver lining.

The Traveling Panther (TTP), a Riyadh-based bespoke travel experience company, has turned to remote and forgotten areas of Saudi Arabia to display the country’s rich history and heritage.

With millions of residents and citizens across the Kingdom staying put for the foreseeable future and local tourism set to take off, their timing could not be better.

“Being a part of an industry that revolves around travel and personal interactions has definitely made things a little difficult today,” said Fahda Bander Al-Saud, TTP co-founder.

“Before the lockdown, the market was ripe with potential – the Kingdom opening up to tourism with the recent launch of the new visas was the start of a new era for the country and an exciting prospect for us as a company. The global lockdown has brought our industry to a near standstill.”

But TTP’s mission was to make the best out of a challenge. Instead of putting operations on hold, it used the time wisely to breathe, refocus, plan and prepare. “There are many things we wanted to develop, from access to a wider variety of facilities, to setting up our experience infrastructure across the Kingdom,” Al-Saud told Arab News.

“Trying to do all of that while also managing visitors and creating incredible experiences is possible, but it’s a bit like laying tracks while the train is moving.

“For all the stress that has come with the coronavirus, there’s also been a small sense of relief – we feel more prepared than ever to deliver on our promise: creating unique luxury experiences for the conscious traveler.”

Before becoming TTP, the young women were considered the “go-to” people for travelers wishing to discover places outside the London or New York norm.

“As world travelers, we were fortunate to experience the top tourist destinations,” Al-Saud said. “When TTP was created, we used our collective knowledge to explore the unexplored, and experience the world outside of what we see on social media.”

TTP has two major milestones: 2015, when the founders visited Cuba right before the embargo was lifted, causing them to reshape the way they thought about travel and starting the company; and 2017, when TTP was formalized and began to do business worldwide.

“We drew on our connections, knowledge and expertise to create one-of-a-kind experiences for select clients throughout Europe, Africa and Asia,” said Manayer Alsharekh, TTP co-founder.

“This was when that we found our two biggest strengths: our focus in engaging the local communities, and our hands-on approach to scouting and trialing all of the locations and experiences we offer. We took those two things and ran with them, and now here we are.”

“We look at everything we do through the lens of sustainability,” she said. “In this way, we ensure that we minimize our impact and help preserve these wonderful experiences for future generations. This is true for all our work, both international and local. We have a long list of destinations on offer, and we’re excited to continue developing that.”

The focus to start with is on Saudi Arabia, namely its Eastern Province, Asir and the coast of Tabuk. “Saudi Arabia has so many incredible experiences just waiting to be seen and explored,” Alsharekh said. “Our hope is to refine and promote as much of the country as possible, both for international and local travelers.”

FASTFACT

103,600sq km

Size of Al-Nafud desert, whose sweeping red dunes make for a picture-postcard setting.

The scouting process includes contacting locals in every area about their favorite locations and gaining a better understanding of the destination from those who know it best. They then look out for adventure sites and hidden gems, from interactions with locals and artisans to natural treasures and local cuisines.

“We research potential local partners at each destination and utilize their destination management services,” she said. “The TTP team then visits the destination on a test trip to see the quality and standard of our partners’ services. We then weave everything we’ve learned into a full experience for our clients.”




Although the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the global travel, tourism and hospitality industry to a halt, five young Saudi women have found a silver lining. (Supplied)

The process allows TTP to design the ideal trip for their customers, and gives them the confidence that everything has been taken care of well before their arrival.

Through these trials, the young women got to know the beauty of their own country. “We discovered the cultural diversity and natural wonders that exist within the Kingdom’s 13 regions, from topography and dialect to cuisine and attire,” Al-Saud said.

“We discovered that each locale has its own flavor and unique splendor. This is exciting for us to showcase, as you can completely immerse yourself in the culture and see the destination in its truest form.”

The women aim to display the natural wonders and incredibly diverse culture the Kingdom has to offer, from the towering snow-capped mountains of Tabuk and the lush green valleys of Asir, to the coral reefs in the Red Sea and the mangroves in the Gulf.

When people imagine Saudi Arabia, tropical seafronts are not the first thing that comes to mind. “And yet off of its western coast, there are white sandy beaches, atolls and incredible coral reefs,” said Al-Saud.

“There are whole towns in the mountains at risk of flooding from the amount of rainfall they get every year for as long as they’ve existed. In the north, entire regions are filled with lush farmland and, on both coasts, beautiful mangroves have been thriving for ages.

“Yet if you relied on common knowledge, you would think the Empty Quarter is characteristic of the entire country. There is just so much beauty,” Al-Saud said. “The Traveling Panther doesn’t just want to showcase it, we want to explore every inch of it ourselves.

“Everything that’s happening now isn’t just opening the region up to the international community but is also benefiting locals who are beginning to see what their country has to give. That’s what we’re most excited about.”

Every year, TTP scouts out and expands into one or two new destinations internationally and locally. “Saudi Arabia has its own strategy because we see it as tourism’s final frontier,” Alsharekh said.

TTP is building these destinations by engaging the local community and raising awareness for conscious tourism. It is supporting the Saudi tourism industry within each of the regions by consulting, designing, and developing experiences and services to bring them up to international standards.

The company also aims to build a community of individuals that share a love of travel and exploration. “The community will be built on the spirit of collaboration and the joy of discovery,” she said.

“This is a long-term, far-reaching project that we’re very excited about, and we’re finding that it is developing naturally just through our day-to-day interactions with clients, partners and personal connections.”

Although there is much international and local curiosity about Saudi Arabia, Al-Saud said, there is not much knowledge about where to go and what to do given the country’s recent opening. “As nationals, we feel it’s our responsibility to showcase our Kingdom’s beauty and tell its tales through local narratives,” she said.

She described the group as “experience hunters”, whose restless nature as travelers fuels their love of exploration and finding the perfect destinations and moments.

“We love to perfect these experiences and then share them with the world,” Al-Saud said. “Think Indiana Jones, but instead of finding relics, we find moments.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek


G20 women’s group focuses on importance of inclusion

Updated 21 October 2020

G20 women’s group focuses on importance of inclusion

  • In its final gathering ahead of the main G20 summit in November, the W20 highlights the economic and social benefits of empowerment efforts

RIYADH: In its final communique ahead of the main G20 Summit next month, the forum’s Women 20 (W20) engagement group highlighted the importance of inclusion.

The group identified four key types of inclusivity, the first three of which are in financial matters, in the labor force, and digital inclusion.

“The fourth that we added was inclusion in decision making because we felt women need to be at the decision-making table, to be able to bring all the community together when (a female leader) sits at the table. We talked about the different levels of community leadership,” said Thoraya Obaid, the Saudi chair of the W20.

“The other issue that we brought up is entrepreneurship … because this is an area that is on the rise and they need a great deal of support, from finance to networking to digital.”

During last year’s W20 summit in Japan, the delegates called for greater accountability. Obaid said this year’s participants agree with this and have developed the idea with the aim of “holding the G20 leaders accountable for decisions that they have made in terms of empowering women.”

Obaid was speaking on Wednesday at the W20 Summit, during a session titled “Nordic Perspective: The Economic Benefits of Women’s Empowerment,” which was moderated by Noor Nugali, assistant editor-in-chief of Arab News. It aimed to highlight the economic benefits of including women in the workforce and inspire the ongoing efforts to empower women by considering the experiences of the Nordic nations in these areas.

“We simply cannot achieve 100 percent of our potential by only using 50 percent of our human resources,” said Niclas Trouvé, Sweden’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Yemen. “Therefore, women’s empowerment is not only the right thing to do, it’s also the smart thing to do, especially from an economic point of view.

“This is not about transferring jobs from men to women, nor is it primarily a women’s issue. This is about tapping into the potential of economic growth hidden behind barriers to women’s participation —economic growth that will benefit both men and women.

“After all, no engine can run effectively on only half of its cylinders. We simply don’t get very far with half of the batteries charged. We would probably get stuck in the desert.”

The envoy noted that the global pandemic has had devastating socioeconomic effects on women and girls. He said that the unemployed and those who work at home caring for and nursing others, often unpaid, are are among the most vulnerable groups during times of crisis.

“Most of these groups are largely made up of women,” he added. “This is yet another reason why we need to strengthen our work toward global economic equality.”

Trouvé said he is proud that Nordic countries have been champions of gender equality and the empowerment of women for many years.

“We have achieved impressive results but we also recognize that we are still far from realizing the full potential of a truly equal society,” he added

Since the 1970s, he said, the participation of women in the workforce has increased significantly in all Nordic countries, and their empowerment has contributed immensely to high levels of employment and economic growth.

“The increase of women’s employment over the past 40 to 50 years accounts for up to 20 percent of our annual growth rates,” he said.

“In Sweden, for example, three reforms in the 1970s paved the way for increased women’s participation: first, access to affordable childcare; second, a more equal and affordable division of parental leave; and third, individual taxation.”

Trouvé said that when he visits businesses, he is often told that greater diversity among employees is a key factor in achieving high levels of innovation, creativity, performance and work satisfaction.

“So, women’s participation is not just a question of quantity, it is also a question of quality and competitiveness,” he added.

Annual per capita growth could increase by 15 to 30 percent in Nordic countries if the gender gap in employment is completely closed, Trouvé said. “Just imagine the untapped potential of sustainable economic growth available here in Saudi Arabia and in other parts of the world,” he added.

The ambassador also welcomed recent steps taken by authorities in Saudi Arabia to empower women, and hailed the rapidly increasing number of Saudi women that have joined the workforce as “a very important development indeed.”

He said the recent commitment by the Saudi government to close gender pay gap is another positive step toward achieving the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 goals.

“All countries, regardless of income levels, could increase growth and help diversify the economy” by doing the same, Trouvé said.

Saudi Arabia holds the presidency of the G20 this year and the group’s annual summit is due to be held in Riyadh in November. The W20 is one of several independent G20 engagement groups led by organizations from the host country. They focus on different sections and sectors of society and work to develop policy recommendations that will be presented to G20 leaders for consideration.