We have everything we need - diverse nature, strong culture, great people - to achieve our target: Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb

Saudi Arabia had 40 million visits of all kinds in 2019. (Supplied/Royal Commission for Al-Ula)
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Updated 23 December 2020

We have everything we need - diverse nature, strong culture, great people - to achieve our target: Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb

  • Al-Khateeb appeared on talk show Frankly Speaking, in which leading decision-makers are questioned on big Middle East issues
  • He told Arab News the Kingdom is “building amazing destinations” all the way from NEOM to Amaala and Jeddah Downtown

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia is on track to meet its ambitious target of attracting 100 million visits to the Kingdom by 2030, Ahmed Al-Khateeb, the Kingdom’s Minister for Tourism, told Arab News.

“Our target is indeed ambitious,” he said. “However, we have everything we need to achieve our target.”

Some analysts have questioned whether the 100 million target might be too challenging to achieve, especially set against the numbers of tourists that visit countries with many decades of investment in the tourism industry, like France and the UAE, which respectively had 96 million and 16 million last year.

But Al-Khateeb — appointed minister last year — is confident that the Kingdom’s unexplored attractions will be an irresistible lure for global tourists in search of new experiences.

“We have a large country, diverse nature, a strong culture and great people, and therefore we have everything to get to the target we announced. I don't know any reason why not,” he insisted.

The minister was appearing on Frankly Speaking, the new series of televised interviews in which leading playmakers, in the Kingdom and beyond, are questioned on the big issues of the day.

The drive to develop the Saudi tourism industry is one of the main pillars of the Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the economy. (Supplied)

He backed up his confidence with some hard facts. Saudi Arabia had 40 million visits of all kinds in 2019, according to statistics from the UN World Tourism Organization, compared with around 1.5 billion tourists globally in 2019, leaving a big potential market for Saudi Arabia to aim at.

Large number of those travelers — around 600 million, Al-Khateeb estimated — wanted “sun, sea and sand” holidays, and he said Saudi Arabia was well placed to offer those attractions. “We are building amazing destinations at the Red Sea, all the way from NEOM to Amaala and Jeddah Downtown, therefore we will enrich the sun and sea offering and we will compete (in that segment),” he said.

But there seems to be no plans to offer alcoholic refreshments to those holiday-makers. Some industry analysts regard alcohol as an essential part of the global tourism package, but Al-Khateeb said that his own market research did not necessarily back this up.

“From the research we have conducted in more than 25 countries — and we took a very big sample — 40 to 50 percent of travelers say they would travel to our destinations that are not offering alcohol. Therefore, we have a lot to offer other than alcohol, and there is a lot to improve in hospitality, culture, food or luxury. You name it, we will be competing on other things,” he said.

More relaxed standards of dress would be allowed on private beaches and resorts — as is currently the practice in the Kingdom. But here are no current plans to change the dress code on public beaches in Saudi Arabia, he added.

The drive to develop the Saudi tourism industry is one of the main pillars of the Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the economy. The Kingdom has been progressively relaxing the strict travel and visa requirements of previous years, and is looking to promote it as a tourist destination across all sectors of the travel market.

The ministry’s market research also revealed a big potential market for affluent travelers seeking to explore culture, heritage and history in Saudi Arabia. “Some 30 percent of the 1.5 billion travelled for history and heritage and we have 10,000 discovered historical sites in Saudi Arabia, and five UNESCO listed sites,” Al-Khateeb said.

“Therefore, we will definitely enrich the history and heritage offering globally. People are anxious to come and experience and learn about civilizations past in this region thousands of years ago,” he said.

High-end elite tourism is one of the fastest growing segments of the international travel business, and Saudi Arabia hopes to capitalize on this trend, bringing big-spending affluent travelers to sites like AlUlla and other historical locations on the Red Sea. “We see a gap in this luxury offering,” Al-Khateeb said.

Saudi Arabia had 40 million visits of all kinds in 2019. (Supplied/Royal Commission for Al-Ula)

But he is also conscious of the financial attractions of the middle segment of the tourism market, seeking beach or adventure holidays. “Today we have major offerings in 2-, 3- and 4-star accommodation, as well as food and beverage and retail. When it comes to these activities, like sport and the adventure, we are improving our offering at the high end and we are building destinations that will also satisfy the middle segment,” he said.

“Whether at the mountains or the cities or the sea it is the same thing. We have many projects today that are catering for the middle class.”

After careers in banking and government service, Al-Khateeb became tourism minister with a mandate to propel the industry towards new highs, and launched new seasons of visitor attractions late last year, alongside a fast-track visa application process for many countries in the world. But he was almost immediately faced with the huge challenge of the global coronavirus pandemic, which has hit global tourism harder than perhaps any other area of economic activity.

He sees some silver lining in the pandemic, and the government response to it.

“We focused on domestic tourism, so we launched the summer campaign this year and it was a great success. The campaign was supervised by the health committee, and they ensured social distancing and people wearing masks. The result was that more than 8 million people travelled around the 10 destinations that we launched in the summer, and more than $3bn dollars were spent domestically,” he said.

Saudis have traditionally been big spenders on their foreign travels, effectively exporting $22 billion of tourism spend in 2019. Al-Khateeb hopes that some of that cash can be kept in the Kingdom in the future as domestic attractions open up. “We have reduced the leakage. In 2019 we launched 11 ‘seasons’ in Saudi Arabia and reduced the travel outside by 30 percent. When we continue to do this, we will definitely reduce the leakage — Saudis will like to stay at home and they will enjoy the offering,” he said.

Landscape shot between Wadi Al Dawasir and Haradh in Saudi Arabia. (AFP/File photo)

Luring visitors from the wider Gulf region is also a priority. But the big plans for the Saudi tourism industry will require big investment, and a large proportion of it is expected from outside investors who can be persuaded that the Kingdom is a viable destination - for global tourists as much as for their investment dollars. As a former banker, Al-Khateeb understands very well the challenges involved.

“We need to inject about $70 billion until 2023, and more than $200 billion by 2030 to fill the gap in the offering, whether in retail or in hospitality or in recreation,” he said. “Therefore, we have been sharing our story with the world. They (international investors in leisure) came and looked at our amazing natural resources, our heritage and history and culture, and they definitely see that there is an amazing opportunity,” he said.

“We are very optimistic about attracting investors from outside Saudi Arabia to come and join our very rewarding journey.”

Foreign investment in all sectors is up 12 per cent so far this year, even with the challenges of the pandemic. There is no doubting the challenges involved in “selling” Saudi tourism to a sometimes skeptical world that often fails to see the Kingdom’s attractions while it is focusing instead on negative stereotypes. But Al-Khateeb thinks that, as more and more people visit the country and experience its unique attractions, that global mindset will gradually change.

“Saudi Arabia is going through a major transformation, and we welcome and invite people to come and experience Saudi Arabia and see the changes that happened in the last few years,” he said. “We have achieved a lot so far and the best thing to do is to come and experience life here and see the changes on the ground.”

Twitter: @frankanedubai


Saudi low-cost airline announces first domestic flight in kingdom with all female crew

Updated 22 May 2022

Saudi low-cost airline announces first domestic flight in kingdom with all female crew

  • Saudi women have proved themselves in many careers that men dominated for a long time
  • Flight 117, with crew of seven, was co-piloted by Yara Jan, 23, who is youngest Saudi female pilot

JEDDAH: Saudi low-cost airline flyadeal have announced the first domestic flight in the Kingdom with a fully female crew, most of them Saudis.

The announcement was made on the airline’s official Twitter account @flyadeal on Friday: “For the first time in Saudi aviation history! #flyadeal operated the first flight with an all-female crew, the majority of which are Saudis by the newest A320 aircraft. Flight 117, flew from #Riyadh to #Jeddah”

Saudi women have proved themselves in many careers that men dominated for a long time including aviation-related positions.

Flight 117, with a crew of seven, was co-piloted by Yara Jan, 23, who is also the youngest Saudi female pilot.

Jan told Arab News that she was extremely proud to be taking part in such a historic moment in aviation for Saudi women.

“As a Saudi woman trying to lead my country with a proud step it was a moment of pride and joy.”

Jan graduated from flight school in Florida, US, in 2019, and joined Flyadeal a year ago.

She said that being the co-pilot means assisting the pilot in many key role tasks such as navigation and completing many checklists.

Jan is aware of how important this is for young Saudi women.

“Although being a Saudi woman pilot is new, it is not impossible for our generation, especially with the backing that we are receiving from our beloved country and our respected leaders, who have supported me a lot to become the youngest female pilot in a Saudi airline. I will always be pleased to have the chance to make a positive change.”

The number of Saudi female pilots has grown recently. Three names stand out: Hanadi Zakaria Al-Hindi, the first female pilot to fly with a Saudi commercial pilot license; Rawia Al-Rifi the first to fly an Airbus A320 internationally as a civil aircraft from the UAE; and co-pilot Yasmin Al-Maimani, who was the first woman to co-pilot a commercial plane in the Kingdom.

Saudi deputy defense minister, Blinken discuss common vision to ‘confront Iran’s destabilizing policies’

Updated 22 May 2022

Saudi deputy defense minister, Blinken discuss common vision to ‘confront Iran’s destabilizing policies’

  • Prince Khalid, Blinken talk about the role the UN and the international community can play in moving Yemen to peace and development

WASHINGTON: Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman met US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Sunday.

During the meeting, the two sides affirmed their countries’ common vision to confront Iran’s destabilizing policies in the region.

They discussed the latest developments in Yemen, with Prince Khalid reaffirming Saudi Arabia’s aspirations for the Yemenis “to reach a comprehensive political solution that would move Yemen to peace and development.”

Both sides reviewed the strategic and historical relations between the Kingdom and the US and ways to strengthen them.

Prince Khalid noted that while the announced truce between the Arab Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen and the Iran-backed Houthi militia remained positive to a “to a large extent”, there is an important role for the UN and the international community to play.

He said the UN and world organizations need “to put pressure on Houthi militias to open Taiz roads, deposit the revenues of Hodeidah port and engage seriously in peace efforts to move Yemen to security, stability, construction and prosperity.”

Regarding Iran’s destabilizing activities, Prince Khalid and Blinken talked about security and diplomatic coordination “to confront Iranian threats, including dealing with Iran’s nuclear file and its program to develop ballistic missiles, as well as its sponsorship of terrorism.”

Prince Khalid also met US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman. During the meeting, they discussed various topics of common interest and continuous cooperation on efforts to maintain security, peace and stability in the region and the world.

The two sides further “reviewed developments the Kingdom is witnessing within the framework of its Vision 2030, commending the cooperation and dialogue between the two countries on the basis of mutual respect and non-interference in internal affairs.”

Prince Khalid welcomed US affirmation of the Kingdom’s support in developing its military capabilities and meeting its defense needs.

The Saudi deputy defense minister also met US Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking and discussed the latest developments in Yemen.

“I affirmed to him the Saudi-led coalition’s backing of the Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council and its supporting entities, and our aspirations for reaching a comprehensive political resolution to the crisis that will lead Yemen into peace and prosperity,” Prince Khalid said in a tweet.

Prince Khalid and his delegation began a series of meetings with key US officials last Tuesday under the US-Saudi Strategic Joint Planning Committee to review the Saudi-US partnership, and present and future strategic military and defense cooperation between the two countries.

Prince Khalid had earlier met White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl, among others.

Rewilding Arabia
Return of the leopard is at the heart of plans to conserve and regenerate Saudi Arabia’s landscapes and wildlife


How Saudi Arabia can become the vanguard of sustainable tourism

Updated 22 May 2022

How Saudi Arabia can become the vanguard of sustainable tourism

  • An agreement with Jamaica puts resilient tourism at the heart of the industry’s post-pandemic recovery
  • The pandemic highlighted the vulnerability of tourism not only to pandemics but also extreme weather

LONDON: Saudi Arabia is stepping up its efforts to become the vanguard of a UN pledge to develop a sustainable model of tourism after the sector’s levels of resilience were pushed to breaking point by the pandemic and new dire warnings of tourism’s environmental footprint emerged.

Addressing the UN General Assembly on May 6, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Tourism Ahmed Al-Khateeb said lessons about tourism’s vulnerability to sudden, unexpected events must be taken from the pandemic — which cost the sector 62 million jobs worldwide — and changes made.

“COVID-19 highlighted the vulnerability of the sector, not only to pandemics but also to the effects of extreme weather, so addressing climate change must be at the heart of building a more resilient tourism, and there is no resilience without sustainability,” he said.

“We must work collaboratively, putting sustainable, resilient tourism at the heart of inclusive recovery. Only by doing these things together will we ensure better and more resilient futures for the millions around the world reliant on tourism.”

A partial view shows an ancient Nabataean carved tomb at the archaeological site of Hegra, near the northwestern Saudi city of AlUla. (Photo by 

The UN’s World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) welcomed the Saudi efforts, noting that the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 has already provided the blueprint for a “transformative and deeply ambitious” economic strategy, and could do the same for tourism.

A spokesperson for the UNWTO told Arab News: “This ambitious plan aims to reshape the social and cultural landscape, accelerating growth through strategic investment, new industries and leadership.

“It is an opportunity to bring Saudi Arabia’s heritage, culture and hospitality to the world; and deliver on climate and sustainability goals. Properly managed, tourism can play a key role in achieving this vision.”

Scientists have said CO2 emissions from tourism will increase by 25 percent by 2030 compared to 2016 levels, which if left unaddressed could be a bullet for the sector as visitors begin to factor in the impact, and morality, of climate change on their destination choices.

Signaling the Kingdom’s intent to become the shepherd to sustainability, Al-Khateeb and his Jamaican counterpart, Edmund Bartlett, signed earlier this month a memorandum of understanding to collaborate on developing sustainable and resilient tourism between the two countries.

Part of the agreement also included determination to not only embrace the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development but to lay out a blueprint that can be rolled out globally for a sustainable model of tourism.

The Taif rose season draws visitors from Saudi Arabia and beyond. (AN photo by Huda Bashatah)

Although firm details on the blueprint have yet to emerge, the UNWTO spokesperson noted that policymakers are “best placed” to play a central role so long as their policies include aims to reduce environmental impacts of consumption and production patterns.

“National tourism planning is a well-established practice among national authorities with national tourism policies covering on average a time frame of 10 years and addressing the same thematic areas across regions,” the spokesperson added.

“Aspects such as human resource development, investment, marketing and promotion, employment, product development and diversification have been factored into the policies as these are relevant aspects for the sustainable economic development of tourism.”

Jonathon Day, associate professor and Marriott School of Hospitality and Tourism Management graduate program director, applauded the Kingdom’s “ambition and commitment,” believing it could become a leader in sustainable development.

“Tourism developed sustainably has the potential to contribute substantially to sustainability challenges faced by Saudi Arabia and the world, and I’m sure that through tourism Saudi Arabia can join the destinations leading in sustainable development,” Day told Arab News.

“The Kingdom has the resources to invest in infrastructure to support sustainability goals and knows that tourism that doesn’t adopt the principles of sustainability can make sustainability issues worse. It requires commitment to achieve positive outcomes.”

Day is not alone in seeing Saudi Arabia’s financial resources as key in any effort it may make to lead the way in green tourism, with Prof. Willy Legrand of the International University of Applied Sciences believing it “would translate” in attracting talent and developing policy.

AlUla, home to Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, is at the heart of the Kingdom’s tourism ambitions. (Courtesy: Royal Commission of AlUla)

“Not only this, the resources allow the country to develop and implement state of the art (existing) solutions as well as being a pipeline for the testing of new solutions to tackle some of the greater tourism challenges,” Legrand told Arab News.

Architect and sustainable tourism consultant Amine Ahlafi said that while Saudi Arabia had only recently opened for tourism more broadly, it was important to remember it had a rich history of religious tourism, and this was something it could learn from.

Anywhere from 2.5 million to 9 million pilgrims travel to the Kingdom each year, Ahlafi told Arab News that this results in around 15 million plastic cups being used to cater to the water needs of everyone traveling.

“You can of course use technology to recycle all the disposable cups, but sustainable tourism should be about finding ways to raise awareness so that we don’t have to rely on technology,” he said.

“As for developing new tourism, I think they should promote the desert potential of tourism as they can market it as a very interesting place for sustainable tourism — which does not mean they have to reduce the quality.

“We can do luxury combined with sustainability and not in a greenwashing way with the design of luxury desert camps that optimize the natural resources, the sun and the wind for energy.”

Ahlafi said a blueprint would need to be predicated on pushing technology and the habitat you find yourself in. “Technology is the tool, not the solution, the solution is building to suit the environment, not trying to have the environment suit you.”

Legrand said the Kingdom’s capacity to achieve its aims would depend on a “declaration of transparency” in which it not only set out its goals but communicated actions undertaken and results achieved.

Day said it was also important to construct the blueprint not as a series of steps that would work for every country but rather to realize it as a list of questions that all countries could ask of themselves.

“Sustainability and sustainable tourism are ‘wicked problems,’ which means there are many things that need to be done, and it requires many organizations and parts of government to work to achieve common goals,” Day said.

“And while there are a common set of tasks, each destination will have different priorities. So, the questions may be the same — but the answers may be different. For instance, Saudi Arabia probably will focus on water conservation more than some destinations.”

Legrand agreed that the Kingdom’s ability to produce a global blueprint would depend on its ability to recognize that there would be “no one size fits all” approach, but rather a series of questions and inclusion of all stakeholders in the process.

He suggested the questions could include: What are hoteliers’ views on sustainability? Are the restaurateurs capitalizing on local agriculture? Are local communities involved? What are the challenges for these different actors? Are the destination marketers aware?

But he also noted that there were “clear, key topics” that would need to be addressed in a global, universalized manner, not least of which is the elephant in the room: Long-haul air travel.

“Long-haul travel remains a major challenge on the emission front and will remain so for the years to come, although airlines are making progress both in terms of efficiencies and fuel technologies,” he said.

“Transparency at the booking stage is critical to make the right decisions about a trip, here Travalyst and its many members are making progress in providing travelers with that information, such as the carbon footprint of specific airline routes, for example.”

Both Day and Legrand agreed that for Saudi Arabia to meet its ambitions as the vanguard in a push towards sustainable tourism, the country would need to hang its efforts around the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals for industry, not least “collaboration and cooperation.”

They face many challenges, foremost of which is improving citizens’ trust in state institutions.

Rewilding Arabia
Return of the leopard is at the heart of plans to conserve and regenerate Saudi Arabia’s landscapes and wildlife


Six Saudis make list of Arab world’s most inspirational businesswomen

Updated 21 May 2022

Six Saudis make list of Arab world’s most inspirational businesswomen

  • List recognizes women who have used their influence, experience and ambition to make a mark
  • All Saudi women honored have made a significant contribution to the Kingdom’s evolving landscape

LONDON: Six trailblazing Saudis have been named among Arabian Business magazine’s 50 most inspirational businesswomen.

The list, published last week, recognizes women who have used their influence, experience and ambition to make a mark in the region.

All of the Saudi women honored have made a significant contribution to the Kingdom’s evolving landscape, in fields as diverse as architecture and philanthropy.

Among them was Princess Lamia Bint Majed Al-Saud, the secretary general and member of the board of trustees at Alwaleed Philanthropies, who is regarded as a pioneer of women’s empowerment in Saudi Arabia.

Winner of the Achievement in Philanthropy prize at the Arab Woman of the Year Awards in 2017, the princess launched her own publishing company in 2003, which now produces three magazines from Dubai, Cairo and Beirut.

Given that female empowerment in the Kingdom is an integral part of Saudi Vision 2030, it was no surprise to see Mae Al-Mozaini, founder and CEO of The Arab Institute for Women’s Empowerment, on this year’s Arabian Business list.

Al-Mozaini is also the founder of Nusf, a social enterprise dedicated to helping advance the economic and social well-being of women across the Arab world.

Ghada Othman Alrumayan, group chief marketing and communications officer at ROSHN, was another inspiring business leader to make the list.

A national community developer and Public Investment Fund project, ROSHN is responsible for implementing one of the largest residential real estate projects in the Kingdom.

The three other Saudi women to be recognized were Mona Althagafi, Rabaa Abdulaziz Al-Othaim and Rasha Al-Hoshan.

As country director for Saudi Arabia at Serco, Althagafi is responsible for steering the British company’s growth in the Kingdom. With more than 20 years’ experience, she has held various positions within government and the private sector.

Engineer and founder of 4A Architects, Al-Othaim was recognized for her outstanding work in the Kingdom’s health, hospitality, residential and commercial sectors.

Owner and founder of interior design company Rasha Al-Hoshan Est, Al-Hoshan holds degrees in interior design and architecture from some of the world’s top universities. She is also responsible for introducing leading furniture brands like Nada Debs, Fendi Casa and B&B Italia to the Saudi market.

Saudi dialogue sessions to stimulate creativity and innovation in Hajj and Umrah

Updated 20 May 2022

Saudi dialogue sessions to stimulate creativity and innovation in Hajj and Umrah

  • Challenges faced by the Hajj and Umrah sector were discussed

MAKKAH: Saudi Arabia hosted a two-day session of virtual dialogue this week, aimed at “stimulating creativity and innovation in the field of Hajj and Umrah.”

The discussions addressed the challenges faced by the Hajj and Umrah sector, pioneering ideas in this field, and ways of promoting innovation within the sector.

Hisham Saeed, spokesman and undersecretary for Hajj and Umrah services at the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, stressed that creativity and innovation are key pillars of Saudi Vision 2030.

“We aspire to impress the pilgrim throughout his journey, thanks to a creative and innovative work system in the field of Hajj and Umrah,” he said.

“If we want to innovate, we must have an ambitious vision founded on excellence and quality,” said Mohammed Saati, spokesman for the Hajj Smart Card Project. “The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah hopes to make the Hajj smart card a key tool in all pilgrims’ journey in the Kingdom.”

Dr. Naeem Al-Bihani, associate professor of entrepreneurship and head of business administration at Umm Al-Qura University, said the best ideas are generated in a stimulating culture and environment. “Innovation is not just about techniques and systems, it’s a way of life for individuals and institutions in all disciplines,” he noted.

Sami Sarhan, head of industrial partnerships at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, said it is vital to develop services provided to pilgrims from their arrival in the Kingdom until their safe return home.

Dr. Ammar Attar, CEO of Manaafi Consulting, stressed that a culture of innovation is essential for the Hajj and Umrah system.