With its stunning heritage sites, €306 billion futuristic mega-city, and Arabian hospitality, Saudi has emerged as one of the world’s most pioneering tourism destinations - and this week, the nation is being put on the world stage.
Global tourism leaders descended on Riyadh on Monday for the World Travel and Tourism Global Summit, shining a light on the country’s planned transformation into a global tourist destination.
Julia Simpson, World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) President and CEO, announced at the event that WTTC members are set to invest more than $10.5 billion (€10.1 billion) in Saudi over the next five years.
It comes as a boost to the country’s Vision 2030 tourism goals.
The four-day summit, the largest in its 22-year history, also launched a new global consumer survey showing that the appetite for international travel is now at its highest since the start of the COVID pandemic.
The study, conducted by YouGov for WTTC, found that 63 per cent of participants are planning a leisure trip in the next six months, with a growing number thinking positively about Saudi as a tourism destination.
“The Middle East’s [post-pandemic] recovery is very impressive,” says Maria Zarraluqui, global development vice president of hotel group Meliá Hotels International.
“If you look at the data from UNWTO (United Nations World Tourism Organisation) in the G20 countries, Saudi is the fastest growing country in terms of international arrivals.”
She said “we’ve seen 121 per cent growth compared to 2019, which is the number one country of the G20 in terms of growth
“Of course, we have the UAE, Qatar now with the World Cup and the rest of the countries, but Saudi is leading the way in a fascinating aspect” Zarraluqui says.
The year is set to close with tourism numbers nearing 2019 levels, with a predicted 126 million jobs to be created in the next 10 years according to the WTTC.
“What is fascinating is that before COVID, one in four new jobs were in travel and tourism. It seems that in the future, it is going to be one out of three.”
What’s happening in the travel and tourism industry?
The summit is hosting 185 countries with industry leaders sharing their thoughts about the future of the sector and the challenges that should be addressed to ensure a safer, more resilient and sustainable travel and tourism industry.
For María Zarraluqui, the tourism industry is resilient in the face of economic uncertainty and conflict.
“It's true that we hear messages about recession and what is going on in Europe, but the reality is that we are not currently facing a drop in the occupancy of rooms,” she says.
“We are a leisure company, and in leisure, this has been shown to be more resilient to the market and to the bumpiness of the market.”
By focusing on cost analysis and digitisation, the Meliá hotel group hopes to move with the economy.
“We see that we are facing an increment in interest rates, hyperinflation in some locations and some problems with manpower,” she says.
We need to be as flexible as possible with our organisation in order to be comfortable with all these changes in the market.”
Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine and sanctions on Russia has led to the hotel group relying on greener sources of energy.
“I think [the war] is impacting everyone, not just because of the social part, which is horrible, but in particular because it has a big influence on the industry and the energy supply,” she says.
“Meliá has been investing heavily in the sustainability market, which makes us more resilient.
“We have been investing in other energy supplies such as sun supply, water recycling and a lot of industrialisation of our processes so that is helping us.”
The event, which runs until December 1, will see speakers including the former UK prime minister Teresa May, the former United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon and actor and filmmaker Edward Norton, take to the stage to share their views on the future of tourism.
Opening the summit, His Excellency Ahmed Al Khateeb, Saudi’s Minister of Tourism said:
“With more government ministers and world leading CEOs than ever before, it will be a true display of the future we want to create.
“A future founded in public and private sector partnership, with sustainability and innovation at its core.”