Tourism to the Kingdom is about to soar — and the sky is the limit for aviation
As a regional business hub and home to Islam’s holiest sites, the Kingdom already attracts large numbers of visitors. In fact, the latest figures by the country’s national airline, Saudia, reveal that visitor numbers to the country rose by 8 percent to 32.16 million in 2017.
Tourism was long a moot term in a country whose economy was highly dependent on its vast oil wealth. However, this all changed in April 2016 when the young, visionary Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced plans that would transform the nation into a global model of excellence driven by a diversified knowledge-based economy. And then came the detail that perhaps demonstrated the seriousness of the mission to modernize.
The country is home to four UNESCO world heritage sites. More than 15 million Muslims are believed to visit Makkah annually, including several million during the Hajj alone. In 2012, Makkah recorded one of the largest gatherings of people in world history, with 3 million people attending the holy city for pilgrimage in just one day. The Kingdom’s ability to manage such large gatherings demonstrates that it has the experience, expertise and infrastructure required to host the large numbers likely to visit when tourist visas come into effect.
According to the Airbus Global Market Forecast released in 2017, passenger traffic to, from and within the Middle East will grow by 5.9 percent annually until 2036, which is well above the global average of 4.4 percent. Consequently, the aviation industry of Saudi Arabia should cater to the increased demand by building capacity both on the air and on the ground to meet the needs of the nation as it embarks on its historic tourism drive.
The advantages that a thriving aviation industry can bring to a nation are immense. The aviation industry encompasses dozens of sectors from construction companies that build airport facilities to aviation fuel suppliers and even manufacturers of goods sold in airport retail outlets. An increase in tourism will further enhance Saudi Arabia’s aviation industry, providing immense employment and training opportunities for the nation’s youth.
Saudia has already begun its expansion as a result of an increased demand for travel to the Kingdom. In mid-2015, Saudi Arabian Airlines launched a transformation program, the SV Strategic Plan 2020, to develop the performance of the national carrier to raise the overall efficiency through investment in new aircraft and onboard products, and enhanced training and development for employees.
Empowering the youth and providing the environment and openings for them to flourish in the Kingdom is key to achieving Vision 2030.
The vast, multibillion-dollar expansion project at King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah will also prove critical in creating the necessary infrastructure to open up the Kingdom to millions more visitors over the next 15-20 years. And although Hajj and Umrah passengers will continue to be the main focus of the airlines in Saudi Arabia, the country could also begin to handle long-haul transit passengers.
And with growth comes increased opportunities for the nation’s youth to explore careers supported by a strong aviation sector.
Empowering the youth and providing the environment and openings for them to flourish in the Kingdom is key to achieving Vision 2030. Innovation is central to KSA’s growth strategy and a flourishing tourism sector is also likely to provide plenty of chances for young Saudi nationals to launch successful start-ups and develop pioneering digital technologies to cater to the needs of Saudi Arabia’s influx of visitors. Figures suggest that the tourism sector could generate an impressive 1.2 million jobs by 2030.
The introduction of tourist visas will also lead to the development of domestic leisure facilities that will undoubtedly encourage more Saudi nationals to holiday at home, thus pumping the disposable income of many Saudi nationals, that was previously spent abroad, back into the Kingdom’s domestic economy. Saudi Arabia’s tourism revolution is also opening the country to increased foreign investment and partnerships with leading international firms. The “Red Sea tourism project,” launched by the crown prince in August 2017, is one example.
The opportunities presented to Saudi Arabia as a result of its decision to name tourism as a key driver for growth are immense. The industries that will benefit as a result of the introduction of tourism are all-encompassing, and the positive effects that will arise from youth empowerment, investment and job creation are plentiful.
But there are other, softer advantages to the introduction of tourism in a nation that has previously been deemed by outsiders as mysterious and opaque. When the first tourist visa is issued, the Kingdom will open itself, its rich culture and its fascinating history to the world. That can only help forge a greater understanding and appreciation for a nation that has been greatly misunderstood.
- Mikail Houari is president of Airbus Africa Middle East.
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