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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King Salman appoints woman lawyer as deputy secretary of Saudi council of ministers

Updated 03 July 2022

King Salman appoints woman lawyer as deputy secretary of Saudi council of ministers

  • Shihana Alazzaz was one of first women licensed to practise law in Saudi Arabia
  • Alazzaz also served as General Counsel at the Kingdom's Public Investment Fund

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia's King Salman appointed Shihana Alazzaz as the Deputy Secretary of the Council of Ministers, in a royal decree announced on the Saudi Press Agency. 

Alazzaz was one of the first women licensed to practise law in Saudi Arabia. She was also the General Counsel at Public Investment Fund. 

The royal decree also listed a few a other appointments, including:

- His Highness Prince Abdul Rahman bin Muhammad bin Abdulaziz Al Muqrin is appointed as an advisor at the Royal Court with the rank of Minister.

- Bandar bin Obaid bin Hammoud Al-Rasheed appointed as Secretary to His Highness the Crown Prince, with the rank of Minister. 

- Ahmed bin Sufyan Al-Hassan, as Assistant to the Minister of Transport and Services

- Abdulaziz bin Hamad bin Saleh Al-Rumaih, as Deputy Minister of Health for Planning and Development

- Khalid bin Walid Al-Zaher, Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Saudi Arabia


Saudi medical team saves life of Iranian Hajj pilgrim in Makkah

Iranian pilgrim Hussain Qasmi Jalmrazy is shown recovering at the emergency room of Makkah's King Abdullah Medical City.
Updated 33 min 44 sec ago

Saudi medical team saves life of Iranian Hajj pilgrim in Makkah

  • The medical team offered to perform an open heart operation, but the patient refused this medical procedure

MAKKAH: A specialized team from Makkah’s King Abdullah Medical City has successfully performed an emergency cardiac catheterization procedure to save the life of an Iranian pilgrim on Saturday, the Saudi Ministry of Health said.

In a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency early Sunday, the ministry said that the Hajj pilgrim was taken to the hospital's emergency department when he complained of severe chest pain while he was on his way to the Grand Mosque in Makkah to perform prayers.

A digital copy of the Iranian pilgrim's Hajj tag, shared on social media by Ekhbariyah TV.

The patient was identified in his Hajj tag as Hussain Qasmi Jalmrazy, from Isfahan in central Iran.

Specialists performed an urgent diagnostic catheterization after examination results "showed the presence of blockage of more than two arteries in the heart," according to the Health Ministry.

The medical team offered to perform an open heart operation, but the patient refused this medical procedure. It was then decided to insert stents instead in the damaged arteries, enabling the patient to recover and continue his pilgrimage, the statement said.

King Abdullah Medical City, with full the support from the Saudi government, offers specialized health care for all Hajj and Umrah pilgrims.

A million Muslims from around the world will perform the Hajj this year, up from only 60,000 vaccinated pilgrims in 2021 and a symbolic 1,000 pilgrims in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. 


Saudi ministry releases Hajj e-guides in 14 languages

Updated 02 July 2022

Saudi ministry releases Hajj e-guides in 14 languages

  • Interactive e-manuals pave the way for ‘perfect Hajj journey’

JEDDAH: The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah, in collaboration with the General Authority for Awqaf, has launched 13 detailed e-manuals offering advice to pilgrims from around the world on a variety of topics.

The guides have been released in 14 languages: Arabic, English, French, Spanish, Turkish, Russian, Persian, Urdu, Bengali, Indonesian, Malay, Hausa, Amharic and Sinhalese.

A ministry video shared on Twitter explains various features of the e-manuals and how the guides function.

“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,” the ministry said.

“All you have to do is visit the guide website, pick the language, browse the guide you need, then you can listen or watch the available materials and download it as well.”

The video collected hundreds of thousands of views, with a number of officials commenting on the initiative.
 
Minister of Hajj and Umrah Tawfiq Al-Rabiah shared the video on his official Twitter account and wrote: “For a perfect Hajj journey, here are Hajj guides.”

In a TV interview, Hisham Saeed, assistant undersecretary of the Ministry of Hajj and Umrah for Hajj and Umrah Services, said that the guides’ detailed explanatory infographics and images will give pilgrims an alternative to audio or written materials.

Each catalog is supported by text, images and illustrations, in addition to a set of educational videos and audio materials.
 
Topics include Hajj rituals, as well as Ihram, Mina, Muzdalifah, Arafat Day, Jamarat, Umrah, health awareness, the Grand Mosque, the Prophet’s Mosque and its services, and city landmarks of Makkah and Madinah.

The guides are compatible with all phone operating systems, IOS and Android, and can be reached by visiting guide.haj.gov.sa

The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah seeks to serve pilgrims in a way that enables them to perform their Hajj rituals in the most ideal way possible. The ministry aims to facilitate the journey of pilgrims and enrich their spiritual and Hajj experiences.

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Saudi Hajj ministry announces alternative flights, facilities for pilgrims from UK, Europe and US

Updated 02 July 2022

Saudi Hajj ministry announces alternative flights, facilities for pilgrims from UK, Europe and US

  • Move comes after people faced technical issues while applying for Hajj via the electronic portal
  • Additional seats were added on flights after people reported limited capacities on flights

RIYADH: The Ministry of Hajj and Umrah in Saudi Arabia announced on Wednesday that it will secure alternative flights and provide additional seats for pilgrims coming from Britain, the US, and Europe. 

In cooperation with relevant authorities, visas will also be “issued immediately to the pilgrims entering the Kingdom as part of the efforts”. 

This comes after people faced technical issues while applying for hajj via a new electronic portal called Motawif and had several issues including no access to the limited seats on flights. 

The statement was also confirmed by a ministry spokesperson who spoke exclusively to Katie Jensen, presenter of Frankly Speaking — the weekly political talkshow produced by Arab News.

The technical issues experienced by some pilgrims with the new Motawif online portal are “solvable and being dealt with”, according to the official spokesperson and deputy minister of Hajj & Umrah Services Hesham A. Saeed.

“I am assuring you now that everybody chooses a program, including the air ticket, now it is solvable, they have the air ticket and everything is done now,” he said. 

“(The pilgrims) still have time, the Hajj season still has not started, we still have ten more days to start the Hajj season and all their difficulties, we are solving it now and it is already solved by Motawif company and everything now, Inshallah, is going very fine and smooth,” added Saeed during the interview which will air in full on Sunday July 3 via www.arabnews.com/FranklySpeaking


Grand Mosque ready to receive worshipers on first Friday of Dhu Al-Hijjah – presidency

Updated 01 July 2022

Grand Mosque ready to receive worshipers on first Friday of Dhu Al-Hijjah – presidency

  • Cleaning and sterilization operations have been intensified
  • 600 employees have been enlisted at the mosque to receive visitors

RIYADH: The Grand Mosque in Makkah is fully prepared to receive pilgrims and worshipers on Friday, the General Presidency for the Affairs of the Two Holy Mosques has said.

This Friday will one of the busiest during the year as many pilgrims have already arrived in Makkah ahead of Hajj which will start on the 8th of Dhu Al-Hijjah (July 7).

The presidency has enlisted 400 employees to receive worshipers and pilgrims, direct them to the mataf and various other prayer spaces, and regulate entry and exit to and from the Grand Mosque.

Cleaning and sterilization operations have also been intensified and there has been an increase in Zamzam water being distributed to visitors.

Around 4,000 employees clean the Grand Mosque ten times a day using 13,000 liters of disinfectants.

There are 25,000 Zamzam containers dotted around the mosque, 20 smart carts holding 80 litres of water are in operation, and 516 drinking fountains are available.

600 employees have been enlisted at the doors of the mosque to receive visitors and direct them to the correct areas, organize entry and exit, and support security personnel in diverting and directing worshipers when prayer areas get filled up.

100 employees are on hand to help pilgrims perform tawaf and other rituals in accordance with the correct manner, the presidency added.