DUBAI/RIYADH: Saudi authorities will ensure equal opportunities for local and international investors in the country’s rapidly developing tourism sector, delegates at the Future Hospitality Summit were told on Tuesday.
Investment Minister Khalid Al-Falih said the aim is to provide a level playing field for all who wish to invest in the Kingdom.
Speaking on the second and final day of the event, he also talked about the efforts being made to achieve the goals of Saudi Vision 2030 to transform the tourism sector and establish the nation as one of the world’s top five tourist destinations. Pilgrims will play an important part in the plans, he added.
“We believe Umrah can be increased to at least 30 million people, from about eight million in 2018-2019,” Al-Falih said.
The number of Hajj pilgrims will remain at pre-COVID-19 levels, which have averaged nearly 2.4 million people a year for the past 10 years, because of space and logistical restraints, he added.
Al-Falih told delegates that the Kingdom’s unique position, given the evolution and development of its tourism industry, will attract investors because the country still lacks much of the infrastructure the plans require.
“What makes Saudi Arabia unique when we come (to the) post-COVID (era is that) we are going to be undersupplied with assets, hotel rooms (and) infrastructure that will address all the opportunities for travelers,” he explained.
The minister said he believes many tourists are interested in culturally enriching experiences, which is exactly what the Kingdom can offer.
“People today are not simply looking for an idyllic beach, which we have, or beautiful mountainous scenery, which we have, or exciting urban developments (like those) in Riyadh, Jeddah (and) NEOM, on the East Coast in Saudi Arabia,” he added.
Al-Falih said that one of the reasons for a decline in direct foreign investment in recent years has been an overbuild of capacity in many sectors, and his ministry acknowledges the risks — real and perceived — that have caused concern among overseas investors.
“We will introduce special economic zones for international investors (and they) will be part of the offering of the Kingdom in various sectors,” he said.
The Saudi economy has taken a massive hit as a result of the pandemic, with the travel and tourism sector particularly badly affected, said Al-Falih. It is therefore important to revitalize this sector, he added, as it has such huge, untapped potential. By 2030, the aim is to add 500,000 hotel rooms and for airports to accommodate 100 million passengers a year.
Amr Al-Madani, the CEO of the Royal Commission for AlUla, told delegates about the latest developments at the UNESCO World Heritage site.
“We are on our way now to reopen to (domestic) visitors by the end of October … with coronavirus precautions,” he said. The destination expects to reopen to international visitors in early 2021, after authorities relax pandemic-related travel restrictions. The Interior Ministry has said that restrictions on air, land and sea travel will not be lifted until after Jan. 1. An exact date is expected to be announced in December.
Fahd Hamidaddin, the Saudi Tourism Board’s chief executive, also discussed the reopening of the Kingdom for tourism. He said he expects tourists to start returning by early 2021, and visitor numbers to return to pre-COVID-19 levels by 2023. There is a lot of optimism for the future, he added.
While Saudi authorities are launching major projects to develop the country’s tourism industry, officials said they are working hard to ensure that the efforts are environmentally sensitive and encourage more sustainable travel practices.
John Pagano, CEO of the Red Sea Development Company, described his project as the most ambitious tourism initiative in the world, and said sustainability is an integral part of it.
“We put sustainability at the very heart of everything that we do,” he said. “We’re working on innovative construction techniques to minimize our environmental footprint.”
The Red Sea project, which expects to welcome its first visitors by the end of 2022, is the first of its kind to use renewable energy on such a large scale. It also embraces recycling and environmentally friendly waste-management methods.
“From a regeneration point of view, we’re looking to protect critical habitats for the many species that make the Red Sea their home,” Pagano said. “We’re going to create the largest no-take marine protected area in the Middle East, probably 5,700 square kilometers, and remove invasive species.”
The summit was organized by the Ministry of Tourism and the G20 Saudi Secretariat. More than 6,000 people from around the world took part.