How Saudi Arabia can become the vanguard of sustainable tourism

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A deserted California beach on July 4, 2020 as pandemic curbs hit the travel industry worldwide. (Getty Images)
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A deserted California beach on July 4, 2020 as pandemic curbs hit the travel industry worldwide. (Getty Images)
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People walk past empty tables and chairs in Melbourne, Australia, during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP)
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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.

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A brief guide to Hajj 2022: What the pilgrims will do over the next few days

Updated 21 min 5 sec ago

A brief guide to Hajj 2022: What the pilgrims will do over the next few days

  • This year one million pilgrims will perform the Hajj, one of the pillars of Islam obligatory for Muslims 
  • Saudi authorities have introduced many technological tools to aid pilgrims on their journey 

JEDDAH: Hajj is an annual religious pilgrimage to the holy city of Makkah undertaken yearly by millions of Muslims worldwide. It occurs in the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar, called Dhul Hijjah, between the eighth and 13th days of the month.

This year, Hajj takes place from approximately July 7 to 12. Taking part in the pilgrimage at least once in their lifetime is a major obligation for all able-bodied Muslims of financial means, and between 2 million and 3 million people participate in the six-day ritual every year.

This year, 1 million pilgrims will flock to the holy city, 85 percent of them traveling from abroad for the first time following a two-year hiatus brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic and attendant restrictions that prevented them from performing the ritual.

To ensure a smooth and safe journey for the pilgrims, the Saudi government has announced a series of entry conditions.

Pilgrims who wish to perform Hajj must be under 65 years old and fully vaccinated against COVID-19 with a booster. They must also present a negative PCR test taken 72 hours before departure for the Kingdom, and priority will go to those who have not performed the ritual before.

Following Prophet Muhammad, for 14 centuries, pilgrims began their journeys in a spiritual state of purity and devotion, also known as Ihram, which is the combined sacred act of Niyyah and Talbiyah necessary to perform Hajj. It is the innate intention to commit an act of worship, while Talbiyah is a special prayer said in supplication to attain Ihram.

After entering Makkah, pilgrims perform the welcome tawaf, circling the Kaaba seven times in a counterclockwise direction, starting at the Black Stone. They then head to the hills of Safa and Marwa, where they perform saee, which is the act of going back and forth between the two hills seven times.

Kindergarten students walk near to a replica of the Kaaba as they perform Tawaf while practicing for the Hajj pilgrimage at the Nurul Iman mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia, on June 9, 2022. Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country. (REUTERS)

Pilgrims then travel to Mina, an area of 20 square kilometers nearly five kilometers away from the Grand Mosque in Makkah, on the eighth day of Dhul Hijjah, also known as Yom Al-Tarwiyah, where they will stay and fill their day and evening with prayers and supplications, resting and consuming water ahead of their long, perilous journey.

On the second day of Hajj, pilgrims travel to Mt. Arafat, 20 kilometers away. The day is devoted to prayer and supplications as they observe duhr (noon) combined with asr (afternoon) prayers until sunset.

Day of Arafat is considered the most critical day for pilgrims and the millions not performing. It is the day that, “atones for the sins of the preceding and coming (Muslim) year” and is the best day for worship and supplication in the entire year.

After sunset, pilgrims descend from Mount Arafat and make their way to Muzdalifah for isha (night) prayers, collect pebbles no larger than the size of a fingertip ahead of the stoning ritual on the next day, and rest until midnight or dawn, when they will make the long journey back to Mina for the final steps of Hajj, the stoning ritual at Jamarat Al-Aqabah.

A million fully vaccinated Muslims, including 850,000 from abroad, are allowed at this year's Hajj  after two years of drastically curtailed numbers amid the pandemic. (AFP) 

On the third day of Hajj, Eid Al-Adha, pilgrims stone the Jamarat Al-Aqabah, or the big pillar, a place where the Prophet Ibrahim threw seven pebbles at the devil. After doing so, pilgrims change from their Ihram; sacrificial animals are slaughtered, and men cut or shave their heads while women cut a fingertip’s length of hair to commemorate the end of the Hajj pilgrimage.

For three days, known as Ayyam Al-Tashreeq, pilgrims stay in Mina and perform the stoning of the other two pillars, Al-Jamarah Al-Wusta and Al-Jamarah Al-Sughra.

With years of preparations ahead of the mass gathering, Saudi Arabia’s authorities undergo major planning every year to control the crowds, dividing a large number of pilgrims into groups and designating specific timings and routes to reach the bridge where the pillars are located.

Thousands of volunteers, military, law enforcement, and health personnel will be on the ground to assist pilgrims in what many believe is their sacred duty to serve the guests of God in the holiest and most sacred of journeys for a Muslim.

Saudi security forces train in preparation for the annual Hajj pilgrimage in Makkah on July 3, 2022. (REUTERS/Mohammed Salem)

Utilizing the power of technologies, Saudi Hajj authorities are including the pilgrims’ smart ID again this year to render the transport of the “visitors of Allah” easier and to ensure their fast arrival to their locations and tents, whether in Mina or Arafat, with robots with touch screens available to explain rituals explained in 11 languages.

The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, in collaboration with the General Authority for Awqaf, launched 13 detailed e-manuals offering advice to pilgrims from around the world on a variety of topics in 14 languages, including French, Turkish, Persian, Urdu, Russian, and Amharic, which are compatible with all phone operating systems and can be reached by visiting guide.haj.gov.sa.

In a video shared on Twitter, the Ministry said: “These guiding e-manuals are interactive, and include Shariah and Islamic law, procedural, organizational and health directives which pilgrims will need during their Hajj journey.”

 


ThePlace: Maqam Ibrahim, the stone on which the Prophet stood

Updated 07 July 2022

ThePlace: Maqam Ibrahim, the stone on which the Prophet stood

MAKKAH: When worshippers circumambulate the Kaaba, they are often mesmerized by Maqam Ibrahim, the footprints of Prophet Ibrahim, kept in an enclosed glass case.

Maqam Ibrahim is a stone on which the prophet stood when the Kaaba was being built.

The stone is 50 centimeters long on each side and has two footprints in the middle in the form of two oval pits. 

(AN photo by Faisal Al-Fahad)

According to historians, when the Kaaba was being built, the walls became too high and Prophet Ibrahim stood on a stone that miraculously lifted him to build the walls and lowered him so he could collect stones from his son, Prophet Ismail.

Dr. Samir Ahmed Barqah, a researcher in the history of Makkah and the prophet’s biography, told Arab News:  “It is a wet stone holding the footprints of Prophet Ibrahim. His footprints remain visible to the present day. The maqam and the Black Stone are the oldest and most sacred landmarks in Islam, dating back 4,000 years. 

(AN photo by Faisal Al-Fahad)

It is located in front of the door of the Kaaba, around 10 to 11 meters east.”

Barqah said that historian Mohammed Tahir Al-Kurdi in 1367 stated the length of the footprints to be 22 centimeters long and 14 centimeters wide.

The stone is set in a gold and silver frame and kept in a glass case. During Omar Ibn Al-Khattab’s caliphate, Nahshal floods hit the city and dislodged the stone from its place. When the caliph came to Makkah, he fixed the stone in its current position. 

(AN photo by Faisal Al-Fahad)

It was previously inside a compartment to protect it from damage and theft. But the compartment was later removed, with the stone placed inside glass casing so that every worshipper could see it.

History researcher Saad Al-Sharif said that, throughout time, the stone had always remained near the Kaaba.

When Prophet Muhammad conquered Makkah, he and his companions decided to shift the stone from its original location near the Kaaba to its current location at a distance of more than 10 meters to facilitate circumambulation.

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300 pilgrims with disabilities to perform Hajj

Updated 06 July 2022

300 pilgrims with disabilities to perform Hajj

MAKKAH: Three hundred people with disabilities have arrived at King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah to perform Hajj, the fifth pillar of Islam.

This is part of a national initiative launched by the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, for the second year in a row, that includes orphans from across Saudi Arabia. 

The program provides these pilgrims with facilities and services that allows them to perform their Hajj comfortably, and forms part of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 reform plan. For those who need it, special housing and 24-hour escort services are provided.

The Kingdom is allowing up to 1 million people to perform Hajj this year, welcoming foreign pilgrims for the first time in two years, during which COVID-19 restrictions meant the annual pilgrimage was limited to residents of the country. 

The General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques confirmed its readiness to receive pilgrims, saying it had mobilized 10,000 workers. 

The presidency also said that the live broadcast of the Arafat Day sermon, one of the most important events in the Islamic calendar, has been expanded to include 14 languages as Saudi Arabia’s leadership seeks to convey a message of moderation and tolerance to the widest possible audience.

The sermon will be available in English, French, Malay, Urdu, Persian, Russian, Chinese, Bengali, Turkish, Hausa, Spanish, Hindi, Swahili and Tamil.


Who’s Who: Naif Sheshah, chief digital officer at KSA’s Communications and Information Technology Commission

Updated 07 July 2022

Who’s Who: Naif Sheshah, chief digital officer at KSA’s Communications and Information Technology Commission

In April, Naif Sheshah, the assistant deputy governor for planning and development and chief digital officer at Saudi Arabia’s Communications and Information Technology Commission, was named as one of 110 young global leaders by the World Economic Forum.

He joined the commission in November 2016 as general manager for strategic planning and development and acting GM of its postal and logistics services and was promoted to his current position in February 2021.

He has spearheaded the communications authority’s digital transformation strategy and helped in the launch of several industry reports including one into the advancement of the Kingdom’s internet and gaming performance.

He also played an instrumental role in launching IGNITE, a $1.1 billion program to transform Saudi Arabia into a leading digital entertainment and media production hub.

While managing the commission’s postal and logistics services, he restructured the sector and introduced a regulatory sandbox for delivery apps during the coronavirus pandemic.

He has also been the chief strategy officer at the Saudi Space Commission since May last year.

In 2012, he began his career as a business process analyst at Al-Elm Information Security Co. and in May of the same year joined Saudi Basic Industries Corp. as a senior business process controller.

From 2017 to 2019, he worked as an ambassador for the National Center for Performance Measurement. In addition, he has sat on the board of the National Information Technology Center since 2019 and has been a member of the International Data Corp. Middle East Advisory Council since 2021.

Sheshah gained a master’s degree in information technology and business process management from the Queensland University of Technology, in Australia, an associate degree in English from the University of Nebraska Omaha, and a management acceleration certificate from INSEAD in France.

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Group of 185 pilgrims arrives in Jeddah under Saudi king’s guest program

Updated 06 July 2022

Group of 185 pilgrims arrives in Jeddah under Saudi king’s guest program

  • The king’s generous gesture comes in line with the Kingdom’s permanent efforts to serve pilgrims, build positive relations with other countries

JEDDAH: The Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah on Tuesday received 185 pilgrims at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport as part of the guest program of King Salman.

This year’s program enables representatives from the the 41 countries working in the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition, along with relatives of martyrs and people injured in terrorist attacks, to perform their Hajj rituals.

The ministry is taking care of the guests to ensure that they will be provided with all the services they need throughout their Hajj journey.

Services include accommodation, transportation, meals and any other services they may need while performing their rituals.

The guest program also provides other services to the pilgrims, most notably securing travel tickets, obtaining visas, providing medical care, as well as providing round the clock buses from accommodation to the Grand Mosque in Makkah.

The king’s generous gesture comes in line with the Kingdom’s permanent efforts to serve pilgrims, build positive relations with other countries and open wider horizons for strengthening ties in the Muslim world.

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