Saudi Arabia has announced a slew of initiatives to drive its tourism sector. How do you see these developments and what will their impact on the economy?
Historically, Saudi Arabia has mystified the global tourist; it is a land of exceptional natural beauty and diversity but one that has largely been out of bounds for the intrepid traveller.
Today, Saudi Arabia is open to tourism; we are welcoming the world with a never-before-seen bouquet of attractions – natural and man-made.
Tourism is at the heart of our growth narrative outlined in Saudi Vision 2030 with a focus on not just domestic and religious visitors but also inbound tourists. The structural and regulatory changes announced will position the Kingdom as one of the world’s fastest-growing and leading tourism destination.
In addition to the new visa policy of offering tourist visas to citizens of 49 countries, massive infrastructure investments have been rolled out to the tune of US$1.1 trillion over the next 20 years. Further, more than $64 billion in being spent on entertainment attractions. In addition, we are leveraging our natural assets, such as AlUla, as well as through cultural, modern entertainment, leisure and adventure experiences. The strategy by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Heritage is to entice first-time visitors to ‘discover Saudi’ from 2019 to 2022 and subsequently to ‘experience Saudi’ contributing to significant gains for the industry.
The concerted initiatives in building the sector will strengthen the contribution of tourism from 3 per cent now to 10 per cent in 2030, when we hope to welcome 100 million annual tourists, in line with the goals of Saudi Vision 2030.
How is Seera Group leveraging the new tourism opportunity in the Kingdom?
As the Middle East’s largest travel and tourism company, founded in Saudi Arabia over 40 years ago, we serve as the gateway to the tourism opportunities offered by the Kingdom.
We have the most diversified business portfolio covering Travel Management (Elaa), Consumer Travel (Almosafer & Tajawal), Hajj & Umrah (Mawasim), Destination Management (Discover Saudi), Car Rental (Lumi), Hospitality and Corporate Ventures, led by a team of over 4,000 travel and tourism professionals.
In the hospitality sector, we have five operating hotels in two cities with 1,880 rooms; our strategy is to expand the mid-market hotel room offering and to offer 6,000 hotel rooms by 2025.
We have also announced SAR1 billion to support the new tourism strategy of the Kingdom - with three focus areas: Launching destination management services, building the mid-market hotel portfolio and empowering Saudi human capital for jobs in the industry. Through our comprehensive offering, serving both business and consumers, we are well-positioned to drive the growth of Saudi tourism and create robust value for the economy.
How will the launch of Discover Saudi transform the Kingdom’s inbound tourism sector?
We recently launched our dedicated Destination Management Company – Discover Saudi – at the World Travel Market in London. This marks a SAR500 million investment to supports the goals of Saudi Vision 2030 to transform tourism as one of the key economic growth sectors, specially to promote inbound tourism.
Discover Saudi comes at the right time with the Kingdom opening doors to tourism and investing in mega-cultural, touristic and entertainment projects. In fact, we are already the DMC for Winter at Tantora at Al Ula.
Our goal is to serve as the go-to company for inbound and domestic tour operators and travel agencies – as well as international and domestic visitors – to access high-quality, rich, local experiences, backed by seamless service delivery.
An end-to-end service delivery platform, Discover Saudi will create a robust infrastructure to support destination tourism services. We will also work with Saudi travel operators as well as government agencies, creating additional value to the economy and promoting job creation for Saudis.
Another focus of Discover Saudi is offering Hajj & Umrah pilgrims and business travellers a platform to explore the Kingdom’s rich cultural, touristic and entertainment attractions by bringing the best of both worlds – warm, personalised human service and advanced digital technology platforms.
From visa support, meet and greet, accommodation, local tours and activities, Discover Saudi assures safety, security, reliability and a great new way to explore the Kingdom. With over 70 activities identified under six themes – tourism, nature, sports, entertainment, F&B, and culture & arts – Discover Saudi has also identified several strategic assets in the Kingdom. Initial activities to be offered include city tours, cultural tours and desert experiences, with more to be added on through own channels or through partners with proven strengths.
You have recently unveiled a dedicated report on the tourism sector in the Kingdom. What are the core findings?
Our report, ‘Decoding the Saudi Arabian Travel and Tourism Industry,’ prepared by SkiftX - the in-house content marketing studio of Skift, the largest intelligence platform providing media, insights and marketing for key sectors in the travel sector, offers a comprehensive understanding of travel trends and traveller preferences related the Kingdom.
Among the highlights, the report underlines that the ongoing transformation of the sector will translate to more socio-economic progress including the creation of new jobs for Saudi nationals and the growth of a vibrant Saudi SME value chain.
The report describes that opening Saudi Arabia to tourism and introducing simplified visa processes, including e-visas and visa on arrival for citizens of 49 nations, is a key driver of inbound tourism.
The report also states that Hajj and Umrah travellers are the primary inbound segment to Saudi Arabia and their numbers have been growing year-on-year. In fact, research by Mawasim, Seera Group’s Hajj and Umrah focused brand, which offers religious tour packages to tour operators in key source markets, shows that after completing their pilgrimage, many travellers wanted to stay in Jeddah and explore the city.
In other findings, the report states that Saudis travel much more frequently and spend more per trip by a significant margin. While London, Dubai, Paris, Cairo and Sharm El-Sheikh are the top five all-time favourite destinations, Baku, Tbilisi, Kuala Lumpur, Dubrovnik and Jakarta are currently trending.
In booking trends, it is seen that men make most of the travel bookings, but actual decisions were made by women. On their inspiration for travel, they rely on three sources: Friends & family, social media and popular culture.
The primary goal of the report has been to strengthen awareness, partnerships and inward investments in the Kingdom’s tourism sector. We will draw on these findings to challenge ourselves to drive the transformational growth of Saudi Arabia’s travel and tourism sector.
You have announced SAR1 billion to build the tourism and travel infrastructure in the Kingdom. Could you give more details?
Our investment of SAR1 billion in tourism covers promotion, distribution, infrastructure and Saudi human capital development. This includes the launch of Discover Saudi, a SAR500 million investment.
The two other pillars of our new investment are to build the mid-market hospitality sector and focus on human capital development by training Saudi youth for careers in the tourism industry.
To drive the development of the mid-market segment, we have already established a partnership with Choice Hotels to manage and operate medium-sized hotels, and is currently developing seven hotels in Riyadh, Jeddah and Al-Taif. The goal is to develop and operate 6,000 room keys by 2022, with Seera already investing over SAR500 million.
We are focused on building human capital development by strengthening the skillsets of Saudi youth for rewarding careers in the tourism sector. In fact, we have launched the Almosafer Academy to enhance Saudi national capabilities within the tourism sector and to help enhance local content in addition to upskilling young Saudis. We have also launched, Jadarah, which offers a unique combination of training, mentorship and on-the-job experience to diversify the capabilities and accelerate the growth of the Arab youth.
What are the challenges that you see for the Kingdom in achieving its tourism-sector goals?
Like any other nation looking to pave a new path, we have challenges to overcome. The two main challenges that we see are related to perception and infrastructure. Saudi Arabia’s perception in the global community has many geopolitical and social associations.
However, the impressive pace of reforms that the Kingdom has embraced help addresses these perceptions.
The second challenge regarding infrastructure is also being addressed with investment to improve infrastructure in the cities, cultivating historic sites, and opening the nation to foreign direct investment. We believe it is also important to invest in human capital development to help build the tourism infrastructure. This is reflected in our training initiatives such as the Almosafer Academy and Jadarah.