Frankly Speaking | S1 E3 | Saudi Minister of Tourism Ahmed Al-Khateeb
Hello, I m Frank Kane, and this is Frankly Speaking, the show that digs deep into the insights of leading policymakers in the Middle East and worldwide. Today, we are pleased to have with us the Minister of Tourism for Saudi Arabia, Ahmed Al-Khateeb. He has the very ambitious job of trying to sell Saudi Arabia, previously closed to most international tourists, as a global travel destination.
Mr Al-Khateeb, welcome to Frankly Speaking Pleased to be with you Frank. It s a pleasure to have you on the show. Let me ask you from the very outset Saudi Arabia has the ambition to have 100 million visitors by the year 2030. France, which has decades and decades of experience in the tourism game attracted 96 million last year. The UAE, which is also been at it quite a long time, only 16m. Tell me are your targets frankly speaking
- overambitious? Not at all. We had 40 million visits last year as per the UNWTO statistics and we are planning to take it to 100 million visits by 2030. We have a large country, diverse nature, a strong culture and great people, and therefore we have we have all everything to get to the target we announced. I don t know any reason why not.
Therefore we launched our national strategy back in September last year. We opened our doors and hearts to the international tourists to come and explore Saudi Arabia and experience Saudi Arabia, and experience our culture, our nature, our pristine and great beaches of the Red Sea or the East Coast and our major cities. Therefore you know we believe we can get a big share of the 1.4 billion travelers who travelled back in 2019. Our target is indeed ambitious. However, we have everything we need to achieve our target.
So tell me, who will these extra visitors be? What s your target profile of tourist visitors to the Kingdom by 2030? Who will they be? That s a very good question. 40 percent of the 1.6 billion travelers back in 2019 travel for sun and sea and we have among the best, you know, sun and sea destinations in the world. The Red Sea is still virgin, pristine, protected corals and reefs and islands. We are building, you know, amazing destinations at the Red Sea, all the way from Neom to the Red Sea, Amaala and Jeddah downtown and therefore we will enrich the sun and sea offering and we will compete on the sun and sea for the 600 million travelers seeking sun and sea. Also, you know, 30 percent of the 1.6 million travelled for history and heritage and we have 10,000 historical discovered historical sites in Saudi Arabia, five UNESCO listed sites and therefore we will definitely enrich the history and heritage offering globally. People are anxious to come and experience
and learn about civilizations that passed by and lived in this region thousands of years ago. I believe we have a lot to offer. We are building our destinations today and we believe the destinations whether in the sun and sea or in the history and heritage are going to be among the best in the world. I will ask you at greater depth later about the employment opportunities and then the training requirements of the tourism boom in Saudi Arabia but let me just go back if you would to the sun and sea holidays and the culture and heritage holidays. Whatever these kind of people are, I suspect that they would like a drink on the beach or with dinner and that raises the issue of alcohol doesn t it, which seems to be associated in the minds of tourists throughout the world. Tell me, is it possible, or likely or being considered
that the Kingdom could ever allow people to drink alcohol on their travels there? From the research we have conducted in more than 25 countries and we took a very big sample, Frank, 40 to 50 percent of travelers say they would travel to destinations that are not offering alcohol. Therefore we have a lot to offer other than alcohol there is a lot to improve and be it in hospitality, culture, food, luxury, name it, and therefore we will be competing on other things that travelers are travelling for. I believe you know our destinations at mainly the Red Sea will be positioned among the best destination globally by 2030 and definitely people will experience them even if we don t offer alcohol.
Minister you ve certainly have educated me. I hadn t appreciated that the sun and sea offering was such a major part of the of the Saudi tourism strategy. Let me go back to that if you would, and ask you: people like to be comfortable on a sand and sea holiday, don t they? They like to dress comfortably because of the hot weather and everything else. Women like to wear swimsuits, will that be possible in Saudi Arabia ?
On private beaches, yes they can, but on public beaches the dress code is like many other countries. Okay on private beaches. So they will have a form of semi autonomy they will have more international standards of wear? Yes absolutely in private beaches and private resorts. This concept of tourism elite tourism, high spending individuals who like to see culture, to see historical sites and heritage sites, that is a tricky sector isn t it? Because you don t get many of these people, it is very low volume but high value. Can that really make you up to the 100 million? Is that the ingredient which will get you to 100 million? We have a gap in this luxury offering but we do offer a lot to the middle class, and the adventure and other segments, and therefore today we have major offerings at the 2,3, 4 star accommodation, and the food and beverage and retail and when it comes to activities like sport and the adventure. We are improving our offering at the high end and we are building destinations that will satisfy the segment that are seeking, you know, luxury travel, whether at the mountains or the cities or the sea. But at the same time we do have many
projects today that are catering or going to cater for the middle class. Let me take you back to the beginning of this year you were relatively new to the job then. You had this responsibility and then suddenly round about February March time the world closes down. Tell me about that challenge and how can you make up the lost year. Some
people are calling this a lost year in the international tourism trade. How can you make up the lost year of 2020? Saudi Arabia when it comes to other businesses, that are part of Vision 2030, are very mature and other industries like for example manufacturing, petrochemicals, so on and so forth, we have just started tourism, we opened our doors in September last year. Then suddenly the world was hit hard by COVID-19, and unfortunately the two most impacted sectors were among our sectors the aviation and the hotels. This gives us the opportunity to build our home, to establish the ministry and to establish the ecosystem. Even though, like many other
countries we focused on domestic tourism, so we launched the summer campaign this year and it was a great success. The campaign was supervised by the health committee, they ensured, you know, the social distance and adhering to wearing masks. The result was that more than 8 million people travelled around the 10 destinations that we launched in the summer, and more than 3 billion dollars were spent domestically. As you know the Saudis are among the big spenders globally, we spent almost $22 billion a year on travel and retail. We want to keep a big part of this spending locally so domestic travel is extremely important. A week ago we launched the winter campaign, the domestic winter campaign, led by our very successful summer campaign, and we are expecting the winter campaign to be as successful as the summer campaign.
Hopefully things will be behind us in the quarter one or quarter two of next year, and then we will be going globally and we will start hosting and promoting tourism in Saudi Arabia for international tourists. Those Saudis who stayed in Saudi Arabia this year, of course they couldn t travel. How would you keep them there next year or do you expect them to go abroad again? Saudi Arabia has great reputation for exporting tourists, doesn t it? As you mentioned, big spending global tourists. How can you persuade them to stay at home this coming year in 21? We have to stop or reduce the leakage. Let me go back to 2019. We launched eleven seasons
in Saudi Arabia and eleven seasons resulted in reducing the travel outside by 30 percent. When we continue to do this we will definitely reduce the leakage. More Saudis will stay at home and they will enjoy the offering. And Saudi Arabia will be a very attractive
destination, not only for Saudis but for the region. In 2019 there were a lot of visitors and tourists coming from the region to enjoy the activities and events we held in Saudi Arabia back in 2019. We will continue this very active calendar as soon as the pandemic is behind us. It is all about putting the software on top of the very advanced hardware we have, the streets, the communications, security and safety, and the great airports. We just need to expand the offering when it comes to F&B, retail, entertainment and recreation. We will continue expanding the offering and we believe this will definitely lead to Saudis enjoying being in their home and will attract tourists from the region and from outside.
Tell me is there a global model that you have in mind when you re looking at the long-term strategy? Is there another country in the world that you think Saudi Arabia should be like, for example, like the UAE or Malaysia or Singapore or Japan or is it maybe a mixture of all these countries? Tell me what s the kind of ideal that you have in mind? If we look at the numbers, and why tourists travel and explore destinations or countries, 40 percent of them they go for sun and sea and 30 percent for history and heritage, and therefore we have major offering in both. What we are focusing to do is to offer this offering with advanced technologies, seamless travel and a better experience. At the end of the day we need our guests and tourists when they come and visit Saudi Arabia to live with an amazing experience, and we want them to come back we don t want them to visit us and never come back. We want them to come back again and share very great experiences
with others. There is a lot to do in every step of the service chain, whether in technology or in seamless travel, or in food and beverages and hospitality and so forth. On top of all this we are very proud of our welcoming nation. We have to preserve this and we have to capitalize on this. Saudi people are very welcoming. I saw the experience of the many people who visited Saudi Arabia when we launched the visa in September last year - they really enjoyed the warm hospitality from the Saudis, whether in the big cities or in the small villages, and all the regions in Saudi Arabia. I guess you are telling me that Saudi Arabia is a unique experience because I can t persuade you to name a country that you would like to model yourself on it must be therefore unique. Definitely and we will protect our culture and our unique hospitality and this what will differentiate Saudi Arabia from all other countries.
You are a former banker, aren t you, and I would like to hear your view on how you might be able to persuade the big global investment groups, in the tourism industry, the airlines, the hotels, the big entertainment groups how you persuade them to get involved with big money investment in the new Saudi Arabia tourism industry? I just need to share with them the opportunity. We have, you know, an amazing investment opportunity in Saudi Arabia. This is a virgin sector, we just opened the sector and the first mover advantage is going to be huge. We need to inject about $70 billion until
2023 and more than $200 billion by 2030 to fill the gap in the offering, whether in retail or in hospitality or in recreation. Therefore we have been sharing our story with the world. They came and looked at our amazing natural resources, our heritage and history and culture, and they definitely see that there is an amazing opportunity. We are working on our regulations to make it more investor-friendly. Today you can get the visa, 49 countries, actually, that represents almost 80 percent of the world s travelers can get a visa in less than five minutes online. We made access to Saudi Arabia easier and we have very advanced banking systems and regulations as well as very beautiful destinations.
Saudi Arabia is a very attractive destination for investors and we have been receiving investors for the last year or so, showing their interest, exploring the massive opportunities in Saudi Arabia, whether in the mountains or the cities or the sun and sea, and actually we have started to sign some deals. Therefore we are very optimistic about attracting investors from outside Saudi Arabia to come and join our very rewarding journey. Let me put one final question to you if you would. Saudi Arabia often faces criticism in the international media and there are often calls for organized boycotts of activities in Saudi Arabia. How do you intend to counterbalance the negative effects of this kind of international lobby when you are promoting Saudi tourism? How can you outweigh that sort of pressure? You know Saudi Arabia is going through a major transformation, and we welcome and invite people to come and experience Saudi Arabia and see the changes that happened in the last few years, and we will continue our reforms with Vision 2030. I believe the best thing
to do is to come and experience how people live here and experience you know how the 9 million expats living in Saudi Arabia and enjoying it with their families. I believe Saudi Arabia is going through a major transformation with Vision 2030. We have achieved a lot so far and the best thing to do is to come and experience the life here and see the changes on the ground. Minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb, I m very grateful for your candid responses and I m very grateful to you for appearing on Frankly S peaking thank you very much indeed.
Thank you very much, Frank.