UN tourism chief sees vital Saudi role in sector’s post-coronavirus revival

UN tourism chief sees vital Saudi role in sector’s post-coronavirus revival
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Saudi Arabia’s move to open up Hegra, in AlUla Valley, has restored a missing chapter in region’s history. (Shutterstock)
UN tourism chief sees vital Saudi role in sector’s post-coronavirus revival
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Pololikashvili, left, says Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been very supportive of the Kingdom’s tourism sector during the pandemic. (Supplied)
UN tourism chief sees vital Saudi role in sector’s post-coronavirus revival
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Pololikashvili, left, with Saudi Minister of Tourism Ahmed Al Khateeb.(Supplied)
UN tourism chief sees vital Saudi role in sector’s post-coronavirus revival
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Pololikashvili, left, with Saudi Minister of Tourism Ahmed Al Khateeb.(Supplied)
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Updated 10 November 2020

UN tourism chief sees vital Saudi role in sector’s post-coronavirus revival

UN tourism chief sees vital Saudi role in sector’s post-coronavirus revival
  • Secretary-general of World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) spoke to Arab News on a wide range of topics
  • Zurab Pololikashvili talked about new reality for tourism sector led by innovation and sustainability

RIYADH: The tourism industry in the Middle East and North Africa region has taken a drastic hit since the onset of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

From Morocco in the west to Oman in the east, tourism has played a significant role in generating jobs and sustaining local economies in a part of the world famous for its holy cities, cultural heritage sites, sandy beaches and glittering metropolises. Ballpark figures of losses suffered by the sector run into billions of dollars.

Nevertheless, Zurab Pololikashvili, secretary-general of the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), is cautiously optimistic that the Middle East can bounce back from the pandemic quickly and that Saudi Arabia has a vital role to play in the expected recovery.

“We really hope that with such strong partners and friends, we can make tourism a priority,” Pololikashvili said in an exclusive, wide-ranging interview with Arab News.




Pololikashvili, left, says Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been very supportive of the Kingdom’s tourism sector during the pandemic. (Supplied )

Q: Tourism ministers of the G20 held a meeting in the first week of July to explore means to boost tourism. What, in your opinion, were the key takeaways?

A: Firstly, I would like to congratulate Saudi Arabia as the host of the G20 summit meetings. We started preparatory meetings in April because of the COVID-19 pandemic. We had other ideas but decided to change the format.

As I mentioned, in April we had a very interesting meeting with the G20 ministers. We discussed how to restart tourism and how the industry can recover, both during and after the pandemic. G20 countries collectively account for more than 70 percent of the global GDP, of which tourism is a big part.

We created a crisis committee where we presented our vision and ideas. Saudi Arabia was a highly active member of this committee. We had five meetings. The objective was to prepare short-term and long-term plans on how to restart tourism.

The situation was evolving on a daily basis. It was a very uncertain moment to discuss the issue, but we finally received recommendations, protocols and guidelines for G20 member states on actions to take both during and after the pandemic.

The main topics will be discussed at the G20 meeting, where we will present two different projects led by Saudi Arabia, one of which concerns the empowerment of women in the Middle East as well as the rest of the world.




Pololikashvili was instrumental in developing tourism in Georgia when he was economics minister. (Supplied)

Sustainable development is another one of the main goals of our discussion in Riyadh. Unfortunately, it will be the first time the G20 tourism ministerial meeting will be held via video conference, which is a challenge.

We will give a presentation on the future of tourism, in which the ministers will discuss how we are going to adapt to new lifestyles, new economies and new challenges that we will face after COVID-19.

I will do my best to be in Riyadh during this meeting and conduct it with His Excellency Ahmed Al Khateeb, Saudi Arabia’s minister of tourism, and the G20 ministers.

Q: The pandemic has led to an unprecedented drop in tourism demand. International tourist numbers will fall by 60 to 80 percent in 2020, according to UNWTO future scenarios. How can the industry become robust again?

A: The most important thing is health. Let us see how the pandemic plays out in the coming months. We are truly optimistic that step-by-step, borders will reopen.

The two main components necessary to restart tourism are reopened borders and a return to the connectivity that we had before.

 

 

Currently, many airline companies are in trouble without connectivity because 70 percent of visitors travel by airplane. Recovery depends on how fast connectivity can restart and how soon borders reopen, but also on how the pandemic will be evaluated in different parts of the world.

The situation is changing every day. I will be very honest: It is impossible today to make a forecast for the next year.

There is much uncertainty. While we can’t predict entirely what will happen, we will be better prepared for what comes in 2021.

If everything goes smoothly, I think 2021 will be much better than 2020, which was a disaster year for the tourism sector. I am sure that in 2021 we will come back with much better figures than this year.

Q: You recently spoke with the Saudi tourism minister and praised Saudi Arabia’s efforts to restart tourism. What impressed you about the Kingdom’s plans?

A: I forgot to mention that the third part of the G20 summit discussion will concern jobs and skill-building.

We are talking about creating one million new jobs in Saudi Arabia through tourism, so we will need trained and well-prepared new professionals. We embarked on a monumental project about eight months ago to this end.

We have a special Saudi program that will be launched at the end of September. The idea is to be ready, after two or three years, to prepare young men and women who will be involved in this mega project, in which Saudi Arabia is investing over the next five to six years.




Pololikashvili, left, with Saudi Minister of Tourism Ahmed Al Khateeb at Al-Ula. (Supplied)

The project aims to create an educational hub for the Middle East in Saudi Arabia. We will thus focus a lot on education, which is a big part of tourism. Without a professional and well-educated workforce, it is impossible to develop tourism.

Q: Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) make up 80 percent of global tourism, so they are especially vulnerable to the COVID-19-linked downturn. What can governments around the world do to ensure their survival?

A: Starting from the first day, we issued recommendations and asked countries and member states to support the private sector, especially SMEs, which are still in big trouble.

We always use Saudi Arabia as an example. From the very beginning, the government led by His Royal Highness Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom I had the honor of meeting, has been very committed to the tourism sector.

At a time when financial investments in SMEs and millions of jobs are at risk, Saudi Arabia is one of the best examples we can show to other member states to encourage them to support companies, entrepreneurs and people involved in the tourism industry. Saudi Arabia’s financial support is crucial for people in the SME sector.

We know this is neither easy nor cheap, but it is a smart and important decision to help the sector survive.

We are working on a lot on innovation. We want to export Saudi talent outside the country. We believe that there is an abundance of creative people and ideas in the sector, and we want to give them an opportunity to showcase their projects globally.

IN NUMBERS

  • 67 million - Fewer international tourists as of March 2020.
  • $80 billion - Lost exports over the same period.
  • 60-80% - Projected decline over the whole year.
  • 100-120 million - Direct tourism jobs potentially at risk.

Q: What are your thoughts on the latest Saudi domestic travel packages as a summer offer?

A: After the pandemic, I think people will start to travel domestically, not only in Saudi Arabia but also across the rest of the world.

That means that, in a period of one and a half years, people will travel more within countries than abroad because there are still many closed borders and restrictions on travel.

People will use their holidays to travel inside their countries, which will be also beneficial for these local destinations.

We declared this year as the “Year of Rural Tourism” without knowing that a pandemic would happen. The idea was to promote regional tourism development and create new jobs there. In Saudi Arabia, you have mountains, the Red Sea and cultural tourism.

All these destinations offer Saudis the opportunity to travel inside the country. Step by step, tourism will develop and become an important part of Saudi life.

Q: As the minister of economic development, you helped tourism kick off in Georgia. What advice do you have for Saudi Arabia, a country that just last September began welcoming international tourists to its UNESCO sites, only to be forced by the pandemic to put its plans on hold?

A: I think the first very step Saudi Arabia took to open its borders and make the country more accessible was an important one.

The second step is connectivity. Saudi Arabia has excellent opportunities and the capacity to become a new hub for the region in the coming years. It has created tourism products such as cultural tourism. The Red Sea and Neom are other excellent opportunities to invest in.

Every time I travel to Riyadh, I feel at home. The people are very friendly, and the country is opening up more in a sense.

Different factors will make Saudi Arabia attractive to tourists and travelers: diverse destinations, educated staff, high-quality services and the presence of more international companies’ representatives in the Kingdom.

Q: Have you visited UNESCO World Heritage sites in Saudi Arabia?

A: We visited the historical district of Riyadh, where it was planned to organize the G20 meeting. I also had the opportunity to travel to AlUla, which I found to be unique and one of the best UNESCO Heritage sites. From what I saw there, I am certain it will become a must-see destination.

People outside the Kingdom do not know the beauty of AlUla; it will be one of the most important assets to promote. I know the investments the Saudi government has made to the project in the past two years.

I remember being one of the first tourists when it had just opened up to visitors in February and March. I always say that once tourists and people recognize a destination, it does not need any recognition from international organizations. I am sure this will be the case for AlUla. A destination recognized by tourists means it is recognized by the whole world.




A bas-relief decorated with a lion dating from the fifth to first century BC found in AlUla Valley. (Supplied)

Q: Final question: Is there a road map for a rejuvenation of the Gulf Cooperation Council bloc’s tourism sector?

A: I think we have two international hubs in the Middle East: Dubai and Doha. Others include Bahrain, Oman and of course Saudi Arabia, which is the future of tourism. I see Riyadh and the whole country as another mega hub in this part the world.

I am sure that we will hear good news coming from the region in the future. I am also sure that one of the first regions to recover over the next two years will be Europe because it is concentrating a lot on tourism.

We have excellent news from Brussels in the form of financial support for all leading EU member countries.

If we compare the Middle East to other regions, it too is under control and in a good situation. This gives us hope that it will quickly recover and become once again a widely visited global destination.

************

Twitter: @HussamMayman


8 Saudi mosques close after 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19

8 Saudi mosques close after 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19
Updated 09 March 2021

8 Saudi mosques close after 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19

8 Saudi mosques close after 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19
  • 236 mosques have closed temporarily in last 29 days
  • 224 of them have so far reopened after sterilization

RIYADH: Saudi authorities temporarily closed eight mosques in three regions of Saudi Arabia on Monday, after 10 worshipers tested positive for COVID-19.
The Ministry of Islamic Affairs, Dawah and Guidance said that 236 mosques have been closed in the past 29 days. Of those, 224 reopened after they were sterilized and steps were taken to ensure public safety.
Six of the mosques closed on Monday are in Riyadh, one is in Madinah and one in Tabuk, the ministry said. It added that six previously closed mosques have reopened in Makkah, Qassim and the Eastern Province after precautionary sterilization and maintenance.
The ministry called on worshipers and mosque officials to abide by all precautionary measures and report any violations or problems applying health protocols.


Saudi Arabia beats Silicon Valley on women’s tech roles

Saudi Arabia beats Silicon Valley on women’s tech roles
Participants including Saudi women attend a hackathon in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on August 1, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 09 March 2021

Saudi Arabia beats Silicon Valley on women’s tech roles

Saudi Arabia beats Silicon Valley on women’s tech roles
  • Saudi Arabia's investment in cybersecurity has led to its recognition as a pioneer, rated number one regionally and 13 internationally by the International Telecommunication Union

JEDDAH: Saudi women’s participation rate in the communications and IT sector rose from 11 percent in 2017 to 24 percent in 2021, an official at the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) said.
“Due to several initiatives, that percentage has surpassed that of Silicon Valley, which is currently at 17 percent,” Bandar Al-Duwais, MCIT’s director of future recruitments, said during the Women Enablement Summit.
After a recent surge in spending on women’s training, Saudi women currently make up 40 percent of digital entrepreneurs, he added.
Dr. Hala Al-Tuwaijri, head of G20 Women’s Empowerment team, said that during the Kingdom’s presidency, Saudi Arabia had three central focuses: Human empowerment, the earth’s sustainability and implementing new horizons.
“Women’s empowerment was at the core of all of them,” she said.
The Kingdom’s investment in cybersecurity has led to its recognition as a pioneer, rated number one regionally and 13 internationally by the International Telecommunication Union.

FASTFACT

• Saudi women’s participation rate in the IT sector rose from 11 percent in 2017 to 24 percent in 2021.

Basmah Al-Jedai, general manager of the Center of Strategic Studies at the National Cybersecurity Authority, said that women took greater advantage of the authority’s training programs than men did.
The National Academy for Cybersecurity’s scholarship program, which offered students scholarships to esteemed institutes globally, has attracted 67 percent of female applicants.
Another initiative, Cyber Pro, which focuses on building a cybersecurity workforce in the Kingdom, has seen 62 percent of female participants.
Based on the Kingdom’s goal of increasing women’s participation in the labor market and the ministry’s strategy, which gives priority to enhancing the role of women in the sector, MCIT developed an integrated program to empower women in the communications and information technology sector.


Saudi Arabia launches women’s accountancy program

Saudi Arabia launches women’s accountancy program
Dr. Majid bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi. (SPA)
Updated 09 March 2021

Saudi Arabia launches women’s accountancy program

Saudi Arabia launches women’s accountancy program
  • Al-Qasabi says initiative will help achieve Vision 2030 goals

RIYADH: A program to encourage Saudi women to join the accounting profession was launched on Monday by Saudi Commerce Minister Dr. Majid bin Abdullah Al-Qasabi.

The program is organized by the Saudi Organization for Certified Public Accountants (SOCPA).
Minister of Human Resources and Social Development Ahmed Al-Rajhi was also present at the launch event.
Describing the accounting profession as the “backbone of any company,” Al-Qasabi said the industry is “instrumental” in the national economy.
The program includes training, qualification, entrepreneurship and employment streams. It is part of Saudi government efforts to empower women and increase their participation in the national economy.
“Women today have strong will, determination and ambition to succeed in all fields, especially accounting, which requires precision, analysis and vitality. Saudi women possess all these qualities,” Al-Qasabi said.
“The program will enhance women’s role in improving the profession and help achieve the goals of Vision 2030.”
The minister said that there are 140 SOCPA-certified female accountants in the Kingdom. He added that SOCPA has cooperated with Saudi universities to help more than 10,000 accounting students benefit from programs and initiatives.
SOCPA Secretary-General Dr. Ahmed Al-Maghamis told Arab News that the organization will sign multiple agreements with the private sector to help promote accounting as a profession for Saudis.
He said that SOCPA aims to fill 20,000 auditing and accounting jobs by 2022.
The new women’s accounting program also doubles up as an initiative to increase the number of Saudi accountants and enable economic sectors to receive better access accounting and auditing services, he added.

HIGHLIGHTS

• The program includes training, qualification, entrepreneurship and employment streams.

• It is organized by the Saudi Organization for Certified Public Accountants.

“The program aims to develop the skills of Saudi women and allow them to participate in SOCPA council and committees,” Al-Maghamis said.
SOCPA is also working to establish a center to support small and medium enterprises. The women’s program includes several initiatives, such as a volunteer club and accounting leaderships, the empowerment platform and the women’s council, he said.
Dr. Ghuraibah Al-Twaiher, chairperson of the Future Women Society, said that promoting women and helping them achieve professional success is necessary for future economic growth.
“Vision 2030 recognizes the key role of women in the development process and calls for greater participation of women to build a vital society,” she said.
In line with the Future Women Society’s mission to enhance women’s integrated economic value locally and internationally, the society recently signed an agreement with the Saudi Financials Association (SFA), Al-Twaiher said.
“The society aims to enable, develop and empower women’s career and professional skills. The SFA increases public awareness of the financial and accounting industries and also contributes to the development of a national cadre that is specialized in finance and accounting,” she added.
Al-Twaiher said the memorandum of understanding with the SFA includes joint cooperation in organizing and implementing awareness campaigns..
As part of this, the two organizations will design training programs for women interested in the fields of accounting and finance.
Razan Al-Sehaibani, a certified accountant, said that women are naturally suited to accounting. She added that she chose the profession because she had the capabilities to be an active member in society and contribute to building the national economy.
She praised the future of the accounting industry as “promising,” adding that the addition of more women accountants will benefit the field.


Saudi Arabia approves incentives for Hajj and Umrah businesses

Saudi Arabia approves incentives for Hajj and Umrah businesses
Updated 09 March 2021

Saudi Arabia approves incentives for Hajj and Umrah businesses

Saudi Arabia approves incentives for Hajj and Umrah businesses
  • Incentives intended to mitigate the financial and economic repercussions of COVID-19

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia’s King Salman approved a number of incentive initiatives for establishments operating in the Hajj and Umrah sectors, Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported on Monday.
The move comes as part of the king’s keenness to mitigate the financial and economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic on individuals, private sector businesses and investors.
“These initiatives come as an extension of the Kingdom’s efforts to confront the financial and economic impacts on the sectors operating in the Hajj and Umrah field and the economic activities most affected by the repercussions of the pandemic,” a statement on SPA said.
The initiatives include:
1. Accommodation facilities would be exempt of annual fees for licenses for municipal commercial activities for one year in Makkah and Madinah.
2. Hajj and Umrah sector establishments will be exempt from paying the fee for employed expats for six months.
3. Licenses for accommodation facilities from the Ministry of Tourism may be renewed free of charge for one year in Makkah and Madinah, which can be extended.
4. Collection of residency renewal fees for expatriates working in activities related to the Hajj and Umrah sector will be postponed for six months, and the amounts are to be paid in installments over a period of one year.
5. The validity of licenses (application forms) for buses operating in facilities that transport pilgrims would be extended without charge for one year.
6. Collection of customs duties for new buses for this year’s Hajj season will be postponed for three months, and to be paid in installments over a period of four months starting from the due date.
The Saudi government has launched more than 150 initiatives, the allocations of which exceeded SR180 billion ($47.9 billion), with the aim of confronting the repercussions of pandemic and mitigating its effects on individuals, the private sector and investors.


Saudi female biker eyes 2022 Dakar Rally

Saudi female biker eyes 2022 Dakar Rally
Dania Akeel describes the Saudi rally’s standards as very high. (Social media)
Updated 09 March 2021

Saudi female biker eyes 2022 Dakar Rally

Saudi female biker eyes 2022 Dakar Rally
  • Dania Akeel says Saudi women have been given the maximum opportunity to discover themselves

MAKKAH: Saudi biker Dania Akeel sustained three pelvic fractures while participating in the Bahrain Season, but she has not been discouraged from planning to compete in the 2022 Dakar Rally.

She is one of the most prominent names in next year’s event, after arduous rounds in different rallies and getting being trained by professionals in the UAE and Spain.
Akeel took part in competitions in Dubai in 2019, as well as in Bahrain Season.
“In the last season, I suffered an accident and sustained three pelvic fractures, affecting my spine in the Bahrain in March 2020, which forced me to return to Saudi Arabia to undergo medical tests and physical therapy,” she told Arab News.
She described the Saudi rally’s standards as very high and said that champions from around the world traveled to the Kingdom to take part in the Dakar Rally, one of the toughest events.
Akeel has been a fierce competitor in races including the Hail and Northern Region Rally, which is a stage of the International Motorsport Federation’s world rally championship.

Saudi women can now prove to the world their ability to compete and participate in international racetracks in different sports.

Dania Akeel

“I was lucky that rallies in Saudi Arabia are very advanced internationally, and I was encouraged by the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation (SAMF). I also became the first Saudi woman to have received the Speed Bikes Competition license after competing in the UAE.”
She thanked SAMF Chairman Prince Khalid bin Sultan and Sports Minister Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki for supporting women who were entering events at an international level.
She said that Saudi women had been given the maximum opportunity to discover themselves and become key partners in all occasions, celebrations and diverse sports.
It was the element of adventure that attracted her to rallies, she explained, because racing was a sport that required a comprehensive partnership and navigation with a co-pilot. The diversity of rallies, in terms of distance and duration, also appealed to her.

HIGHLIGHTS

• Dania Akeel is one of the most prominent names in next year’s event.

• Akeel took part in competitions in Dubai in 2019, as well as in the Bahrain Season.

• Akeel has been a fierce competitor in races including the Hail and Northern Region Rally.

“The Sharqiyah International Baja Toyota Rally is my personal first race. It is an incentive for me to participate in the 2022 Dakar Rally and a race that introduces me to the future world of racing.”
She aimed to continue in the rally with good health and safety measures in place and learn from her experiences which, she said, was important for the “real takeoff and acquisition of essential skills in this kind of races.”
There was a great passion for the sport, she observed, especially among ambitious Saudi women who had discovered challenging worlds and areas that reflected their reputation.
“They can now prove to the world their ability to compete and participate in international racetracks in different sports.”
Akeel, who holds a master’s degree in international business, said that motorbikes had helped her to discover herself and learn about concentration, mastery, responsibility and participation skills. She also learned about mental clarity.
“This is a sport that needs full commitment to training, physical and mental fitness and control.”
Akeel has been passionate about driving since her childhood. She rode her first quad bike aged 8, and her first 150cc dirt bike in the desert at 14.
“I believe it is only natural for me to partake in one of the most challenging desert championships around the world, which also happens to take place in our sandy backyard,” she said.
Akeel was also the recipient of the “Rookie of the Year” award during her first racing season, for the Ducati Cup in the UAE National Sportbike Super series 2019/2020 season.