UN World Tourism Organization Opens Regional Office in Riyadh
Saudi Arabia's Tourism Minister Ahmed Al Khateeb hosts the the “Tourism Recovery Summit” in Riyadh on May 26, 2021. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images)

UN World Tourism Organization Opens Regional Office in Riyadh

Kingdom, World Bank announce $100 million global tourism fund, as Saudis take additional steps to encourage foreign visitors

Saudi Arabia on Wednesday hosted the “Tourism Recovery Summit” and the inauguration of a UN World Tourism Organization regional office in Riyadh.

The Saudi government and the World Bank also committed $100 million to further “sustainable international tourism growth” through a new International Fund for Comprehensive Tourism, Ahmed Al Khateeb, the kingdom’s first-ever tourism minister, declared at the conference.

These may seem like surprising moves, coming from a country that first issued tourist visas less than two years ago and is known for its conservative religiosity and oil wealth more than anything else.

However, Dr. Paul Rivlin, an economist and senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, explains that this reflects Saudi Arabia’s wider effort to diversify its economy. “It’s part of the [Saudi] attempt to transform from a country whose dependence on oil is very significant,” to a market with more balance among its sectors, he told The Media Line.

This latest development can be seen against the backdrop of Saudi Vision 2030, a strategic framework championed by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman intended, in part, to create a more balanced economy and develop public service sectors. At present, oil and gas revenue is responsible for almost 50% of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC. Vision 2030 includes a focus on tourism and aspires to increase the sector’s contribution to GDP from 3% to 10%. Tourism projects include the gigantic Red Sea Project, a sprawling luxury destination being constructed on the kingdom’s western coast.

Rivlin explains that being part of international organizations such as the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) aids these efforts. “Cooperation with the international tourism and transportation industries become easier,” he said.

Adel Hamaizia, an associate fellow with Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa Program in London, told The Media Line the step of opening a UNWTO office in the Saudi capital is “most certainly a positive one for the kingdom, as it provides another opportunity after the hosting of the G20 to demonstrate leadership in the plurilateral and multilateral space.” Riyadh in 2020 hosted, virtually due to the pandemic, the annual Leaders’ Summit of G20, a group of 20 major world economies.

The Saudi government hopes “this also kick-starts the growth of the fledgling leisure tourism sector and attract tourists, domestic and international, to the UNESCO sites, sports megaevents, and scenic coastal locations as we emerge from the pandemic,” Hamaizia adds.

Most of the kingdom’s foreign tourists are religious pilgrims coming to perform the Islamic Hajj. Despite this, according to Khateeb, the Saudi tourism minister, international visits decreased by 74% during the global pandemic in 2020, Arab News reported. Yet, Saudi Arabia saw an increase of 35,000 jobs in the tourism sector during this period, the report also said, which can likely be attributed to growing domestic tourism and government investment. With the country reopening to international travel on May 17, Saudis can expect to start to reap the benefits of their first stages of investment.

Janet Moore, owner of the California-based tour company Distant Horizons, has sent many groups to the kingdom over the years. “I have lived through getting Saudi visas for 25 years … and it has been horrible,” she told The Media Line.

However, during a visit to the country in January 2020, she was astounded by the immense improvements to the tourism sector, which began with the painless process of procuring a visa.

“When I came back in January, I didn’t know how to describe what I saw in the change. It was monumental,” Moore said.

“There’s just no issue with infrastructure anymore. It was always a challenge; I don’t think you could have done Saudi Arabia alone prior to this eVisa and prior to a clearly conscious decision to go for tourism,” she added.

Getting an eVisa took Moore less than 24 hours, and everything from the variety of accommodation on offer to the openness to internationals visiting has taken a giant leap forward, she says.

Jeddah-based Saudi tour operator Samir Komosani, right, and Zurab Pololikashvili, secretary general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization. (Courtesy)

Jeddah-based Samir Komosani, the first Saudi tour operator to receive a license in the kingdom, told The Media Line that the “change being made” in the kingdom is amazing. Ministries have been established to further Saudi Arabia’s offerings for international visitors, and the government is working to attract artists and hold events that would draw visitors from abroad. Concomitantly, infrastructure such as additional airports and trains are being developed, and government encouragement of private ventures has led to the opening of hotels, restaurants and other tourism-related businesses.

Komosani also notes that while these developments may be new in Saudi Arabia, the country has a very long history of hosting foreign guests coming to visit the holiest sites of Islam. People coming to the country now are attracted by a sense of mystery created specifically because Saudi Arabia was previously closed to many.

He says of the international cooperation launched on Wednesday with the opening of the WTO office and the new fund that “I believe that this actually proves how serious the Saudi government is today” about developing the travel sector. Additionally, the tour operator expects that the fund and international expertise will give a significant boost to the kingdom’s fledgling tourism industry and will contribute to its competitiveness in the global tourism market as a destination.

They’ve got all the pieces of the tourism puzzle, and now it’s a question of fitting those together

Hamaizia says that “the success of the tourism sector will be down to Saudi Arabia’s value proposition for domestic, regional and international tourists.”

The cost of visiting the kingdom will be the most important factor determining the success or failure of the country’s efforts, he explains. The question, he says, is will the Saudis be able to compete with other regional destinations such as “Aqaba and Petra [in Jordan] or Sharm El Sheikh and Hurghada [in Egypt]? This is unlikely in the short to medium term.”

And while it is likely that regional tourists, such as those coming from other Gulf countries, will be interested in visiting the kingdom’s attractions, beyond the holy cities of Mecca where non-Muslims are prohibited from entering the city, and Medina whose Old City’s sacred core is off limits to non-Muslims, “the jury is out on international visitors or at least attracting the numbers of visitors that would make any of these megaplans even mildly feasible,” Hamaizia says.

Moore is enthusiastic about the merits of Saudi Arabia as a destination, with its one-of-a-kind juxtaposition of unique natural assets, archaeological marvels, cultural riches and opulent modernity. However, she says, the level of interest is lower than expected.

“It’s hard to judge because of COVID, but … I’m surprised I haven’t had more follow-up,” she said, pointing to the negative view of the kingdom negative in the US, especially after the much-publicized murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul, as a possible reason. Still, she is optimistic that Saudi Arabia and its fascinating attractions will catch on as a destination.

Komosani also is optimistic. “We in Saudi Arabia have a lot to offer … I think that within four to five years, Saudi Arabia will be one of the top 10-15” tourism destinations in the world, he said.

Moore adds that marketing more focused on the historical and cultural richness of the country might better serve the tourism endeavor. At present, she says, these aspects do not receive their due from marketers, who instead focus on luxurious beach-front hotels and attractions such as extreme driving in the desert.

Developing these matters correctly is difficult for a country entering the tourism market so late in the game, she explains. However, the UN tourism body excels exactly in this sphere – developing a country’s historical and cultural attractions. The new office may thus be able to give Saudi Arabia exactly the assistance it needs.

“They’ve got all the pieces of the tourism puzzle, and now it’s a question of fitting those together,” Moore says.


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