It was an incredibly proud moment for me to see our country open up to international tourists for the first time last year, as I am sure it was for so many Saudis. Not only does the Kingdom have so much to offer domestic and international tourists, but it was yet another exciting step toward our Vision 2030 ambitions.
So much has already been achieved. In the first five months since the launch of tourist visas, over 415,000 of them were issued. In the first three months of 2020 alone, 122,000 e-visa travelers visited the Kingdom. The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage became the Ministry of Tourism and the Saudi Tourism Authority, both led by Ahmed Al-Khateeb, who helped usher in the long-awaited tourism visa.
But tourism has been one of the sectors hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic. The UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) has assessed that 100-120 million direct tourism jobs are at risk from the shutdown of international borders.
The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) has calculated that tourism is responsible for over 10 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and 330 million jobs, or 10 percent of jobs worldwide. Put simply, without tourism the global economy cannot fully recover.
With this challenge ahead of us, the Ministry of Tourism is chairing the G20 Tourism Working Group under the Saudi G20 presidency, to develop a consensus on international tourism policy and responses during one of the most troubling times for the sector.
We can only transition into a new normal through multilateral cooperation and alignment. This is exactly what the G20 stands for, and this is exactly what the Tourism Working Group is working toward.
The G20 has moved swiftly to put economic recovery at the heart of its agenda, injecting an unprecedented $9 trillion into the global economy and working to develop an action plan laying the foundations for a strong recovery.
An Extraordinary Tourism Ministers’ Meeting was called in April to discuss the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 has had on the sector, and to coordinate a recovery plan. Today, the Tourism Working Group will meet for the second time to continue to build on this work.
So what is the G20 vision for the future? The working group is operating under a guiding principle that in order to realize tourism’s full potential, the sector needs to be built upon a foundation of sustainable social, economic and environmental policies and practices.
The G20, under the Saudi presidency, is developing a framework for a tourism sector emerging out of this crisis that will further generate and increase jobs, empower women and youth, foster education and capacity building, avoid over-tourism, and protect the environment and cultural heritage worldwide.
Saudi Arabia has already implemented many of these sustainable practices. The Royal Commission for AlUla is working closely with local and international experts to deliver an environmental and historical transformation of AlUla, so much so that the G20 Tourism Working Group will honor the work being done there by using it as an illustrative example for its guiding framework for sustainable tourism practices.
The G20 is also working hard to promote safe, seamless traveling experiences. Digital solutions to facilitate this will be explored in the working group, but the meeting will also be an opportunity for the Ministry of Tourism to highlight the work that is already underway in the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia was one of the first countries in the world to back the first-ever global safety and hygiene stamp, launched by the WTTC to recognize governments that have adopted global health and hygiene standards.
The ministry is at the heart of the international tourism sector’s recovery, leading the transition of tourism into an experience that is better and more sustainable than before. Beyond the G20, we are leading regional efforts, with the Saudi tourism minister chairing the Arab Tourism Ministers’ Meeting on the future of travel, as well as international efforts through the UNWTO and continuing development of the WTTC global protocols.
The Saudi tourism ecosystem is growing daily, with public-private partnership at the heart of its success. Last month saw the launch of the $4 billion Tourism Development Fund in collaboration with private investors and investment banks. And the Saudi Tourism Authority has now launched its domestic summer tourism campaign.
Our Vision 2030 ambition for tourism to contribute more than 10 percent of GDP by 2030 has not changed. These are tough times, but the G20 Tourism Working Group, the Saudi G20 presidency and the Kingdom are more than capable of rising to the challenge.
• Sarah R. Al-Husseini is general director of international cooperation at the Saudi Ministry of Tourism, and chair of the G20 Tourism Working Group.