Saudi Arabia is on the verge of a massive tourism expansion in the coming days due to the establishment of a new airport in Jeddah, and the various mega infrastructure projects under way, said Leonardo F.M. Baiocchi, general manager of Four Seasons Hotel in Istanbul.
“However, services provided in the Kingdom's hospitality sector have to be improved if it has to be on par with its counterparts the world over,” Baiocchi told Diana Al-Jassem of Arab News in an exclusive interview in Jeddah.
According to Baiocchi, the unstable political situation in some parts of the region might impact the tourism industry. “Tourism can have a sustained growth and flourish in a peaceful and economic environment. Turkey and some other countries are benefiting from the current politically uncertain situations in the MENA,” he added.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
As an industry professional, what are your views about the changes you’ve seen in the Saudi tourism industry over the years?
I have been in Jeddah many times. During my current sixth visit, I can assure that I have noticed several changes in the tourism and hospitality industry. The opening of a new airport will have a positive impact on tourism. The expansion of the holy places is also an element that will contribute to the tourism industry’s growth. As a tourist expert, I think Saudi Arabia has cities that are unique compared to many others elsewhere in the world. Four Seasons hotel is planning to implement many tourist projects in Saudi Arabia but they are not signed as yet. Mixed development projects in Jeddah are coming up soon, which will include the highest tower in the world. Such developments will encourage Saudi tourism for sure. We have our longstanding operations in Riyadh, and we are very much satisfied with our projects there that include Italian restaurants.
What are the Four Seasons’ top priorities in the current stage?
I think the holy areas need more hotels in the coming periods. Although we are expanding widely, we still don’t have further projects in the holy areas. We are depending on Prince Alwaleed bin Talal to guide us how to strengthen our presence in the region.
What is your evaluation of the Saudi hotel sector, and how would your hotel work to meet the needs of Saudi Arabia in the coming years?
Saudi Arabia might witness many development projects along the seaside. The only problem coming in the way of Saudi tourism is with regards to the issuance of visas for tourists. I expect the government to fix this problem. I wish to see more tourists in Saudi Arabia where it can provide warm welcome and the world’s best hospitality that I have never seen in Europe, for example.
What are the current trends in the hospitality industry that will have a staying power over the next decade?
Hotel experts worldwide need to work on basic services and hygiene. If we talk about Saudi Arabia in particular, they have to develop the available services. When compared to certain other countries, Saudi Arabia is lagging behind in terms of providing services. For example, there should be more hotel schools to teach servicing, housekeeping, and hospitality ethics. Saudi Arabia needs such steps, because it has fantastic structures, very nice hotels, and unique holy cities. I would like to see hotels that reflect the soul of the country. I have seen many modern hotels like what we have in Europe, but I must say Saudi Arabia has traditional hotels that reflect its soul.
Travel business has been a major element in Saudi Arabia, what are your expectations over the travel business sector in the coming years?
There is more variety currently. More hotels and choices are opening in Riyadh. There are two big towers in Riyadh where the competition is getting tougher. Also, in Jeddah, we are witnessing the implementation of many mega projects that encourage tourism, hospitality and retail activities. Such developments offer more challenges, where it’s healthy to raise the level of services offered.
What is Saudi Arabia’s position in terms of hotels among GCC countries and how does religious tourism contribute to increase demand on hotels in Saudi market?
Saudi Arabia is a top market, and it’s the biggest. It is growing fast, where there are a number of travel agencies and hotels continue to open. The new generation of Saudis is more aware of hotels and destinations. Saudis have explored the top destinations and they are moving to newer cities, which raise the level of awareness in terms of hospitality. The Internet helps Saudis to be aware of the tourism industry. Domestically, there is always an internal competition between the main cities but religious areas always attract large numbers of both internal and external tourists.
What has been the impact of the Arab Spring on the tourism sector in the MENA and GCC regions?
I don’t think the changing political climate in the Middle East is affecting internal tourism. Despite these changes, people still travel and they want to explore new destinations. Tourism industry requires peace and economic growth. Some countries are benefiting from the current disturbances in parts of the region. For example, Saudi travelers stopped going to Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, and are instead visiting Turkey, which enjoys political stability.
What is Saudi investors’ contribution toward establishing mega tourism projects worldwide?
There is a lot of money going abroad. Saudis have started investing in tourist and real estate projects overseas, especially in Turkey. The law in Turkey has changed in favor of foreign buyers of real estate. There is a good opportunity in the emerging markets for Saudi banks and investors to invest abroad. I think Turkey is an attractive destination for many investors.