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


Why this retired engineer is a ‘model’ Saudi citizen

The models include typical houses and traditional shops that served fava beans, barbecued meat, kebabs and mabshoor, a traditional Arab dish of bread in a meat or vegetable broth. (Photos/Huda Bashatah)
The models include typical houses and traditional shops that served fava beans, barbecued meat, kebabs and mabshoor, a traditional Arab dish of bread in a meat or vegetable broth. (Photos/Huda Bashatah)
Updated 04 August 2021

Why this retired engineer is a ‘model’ Saudi citizen

The models include typical houses and traditional shops that served fava beans, barbecued meat, kebabs and mabshoor, a traditional Arab dish of bread in a meat or vegetable broth. (Photos/Huda Bashatah)
  • Abdul Aziz Taher Al-Hebshi aims to preserve the history of social and cultural life in Saudi Arabia
  • Makkah in those days was a beacon for writers, poets and scientists

MAKKAH: A Saudi agricultural engineer is spending his retirement years helping to preserve the Kingdom’s architectural and cultural history — in the form of extremely accurate models of important buildings and sites in Jeddah and Makkah.

Now Abdul Aziz Taher Al-Hebshi has turned his house in Jeddah’s Al-Rawdah neighborhood into an exhibition space to showcase his models, which represent a fascinating record of daily social and cultural life in the cities in the early-to-mid 20th century.
A good example of this is his model of a “writer’s cafe” in the Misfalah neighborhood of Makkah that was once popular with writers, intellectuals and poets. Through it, he said, he aims to immortalize the role these figures played in the development of literature in Saudi Arabia and the country’s cultural history.
“Knowledgeable people told me that the cafe where Makkah’s writers, poets and intellectuals used to go to was Saleh Abdulhay Cafe, located next to Bajrad Cafe,” 72-year-old Al-Hebshi told Arab News. “Similar cafes were found throughout Makkah’s Misfalah neighborhood in the past.”
He said culture and literature thrived in Makkah in those days, along with the study of science and the quest for knowledge. The city was therefore a beacon for writers, poets and scientists, and the Saleh Abdulhay Cafe was one of the places where they could gather for intellectual and cultural discussions.
“Among the cultural and intellectual figures that used to go to the writer’s cafe … was the Saudi Minister of Culture Mohammed Abdu Yamani,” he said, adding that such venues were the country’s first literary and cultural forums, where people could gather to discuss literary and intellectual issues.
With his models and exhibition, Al-Hebshi said he wants to depict and preserve this history of day-to-day life and culture in Makkah and Jeddah in days gone by. In addition to the cafe, his models include typical houses and traditional shops that served fava beans, barbecued meat, kebabs and mabshoor, a traditional Arab dish of bread in a meat or vegetable broth.
In particular, he said he wants to immortalize the lives of the intellectuals and writers of the era by documenting their daily lives, the ways in which people interacted with them and how neighborhoods such as Misfalah developed as important cultural centers.
So far he has spent three years building his models of cafes, shops, houses and public squares. He has completed four and is working on a fifth. The task requires hard work and patience, he said. For example, it requires great effort to accurately recreate in miniature the rawasheen, the elaborately patterned wooden window frames found in old buildings in Makkah and Jeddah that maximize natural light and air flow. Great accuracy is required throughout the model making process when it comes to the sizes, dimensions and scale.
“One meter in real life is 10 centimeters in the models,” Al-Hebshi said, which represents a scale of one-to-10. “This measure seeks to maintain, as much as possible, the space’s real dimensions.”
The contents of rooms must also be in scale with the building and each other, he explained: “A bottle of Coca-Cola cannot be bigger than a watermelon and so on.” These are all important details in his models, he added, which ensure they are accurate and consistent.
Given the incredible detail and quality of the models, you would be forgiven for thinking Al-Hebshi is a trained carpenter; in fact he is an enthusiastic amateur with a true passion for the craft. Such is his dedication that even hand injuries — and the need for surgery after damaging a finger with a drill — have not kept him from his work for long.

HIGHLIGHT

Abdul Aziz Taher Al-Hebshi says he was inspired by Jeddah’s Old Town and its magnificent Hijazi buildings with rawasheen, beautifully crafted doors, ornate engravings and delicate details, along with the beauty of its landscape and old streets.

He said his model making began after he found some tools that had been abandoned in a carpentry shop, and for materials he used wood and discarded kaftans he found in stores he shopped at. Wood cutting requires great skill, he added, and while he makes most parts of his models, he said he imports some items from abroad to ensure the highest levels of accuracy. For example he buys miniature signs advertising popular international brands such as Pepsi, Miranda and 7-Up, which are difficult to recreate through woodworking.
Al-Hebshi was director of the Agricultural Bank in Jeddah when he was forced to retire in 2006 as a result of a back injury, and he found himself wondering what he could do with his time. A few years earlier he had developed an interest in woodworking but the demands of his job left him with little time to pursue it. A friend who was aware of this suggested he do something with the wood from a large felled neem tree that had been dumped in Jeddah.
“That tree turned out to be the start of me professionally building models,” he said. He added that he was inspired by Jeddah’s Old Town and its magnificent Hijazi buildings with rawasheen, beautifully crafted doors, ornate engravings and delicate details, along with the beauty of its landscape and old streets. The Saudi leadership has put a special focus on the area to showcase its history and splendor and Al-Hebshi said that this has helped him research his detailed designs.
He added that he welcomes all those who wish to visit his house, in Al-Rawdah neighborhood 3, to see his models. He plans to build more to add to his incredible picture of past life in the Kingdom, and the people who helped the country become the nation it is.


Saudi anti-extremism initiative leads the world, says UN expert

Saudi anti-extremism initiative leads the world, says UN expert
Updated 04 August 2021

Saudi anti-extremism initiative leads the world, says UN expert

Saudi anti-extremism initiative leads the world, says UN expert
  • Head of UN Center for Counter-Terrorism ‘impressed by the pioneering research work’ carried out by Kingdom’s Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology
  • Center’s Gether2 initiative, which aims to raise awareness of the risks of extremism among people with hearing disabilities, singled out for particular praise

JEDDAH: Saudi Arabia’s Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology (Etidal) is a “world leader” in pioneering work to prevent and counter violent extremism, according to Jehangir Khan, director of the UN Center for Counter-Terrorism (UNCCT).

“Etidal is a world leader in this field and we are proud of it,” he said during a visit by a UNCCT delegation to Etidal’s headquarters in Riyadh on Tuesday. “We are very pleased … to be able to work closely with the center.

“We are impressed by the pioneering research work you are doing in this field. We have to follow your example on matters in which we need to cooperate.”

Khan in particular highlighted Eitdal’s Gether2 initiative, which aims to raise awareness among people with hearing disabilities of the risks of extremism, saying he had never seen any other initiatives designed to reach people with disabilities in this way.

“I congratulate you on this project and we would like to know more about it,” he said. “As you know, we in the United Nations have specific agencies that deal with matters of concern to people with disabilities from a humanitarian side only, unlike your side, where I think we should see the whole picture.”

The UN delegation was welcomed to the center by Etidal’s secretary-general, Mansour Al-Shammari. During the visit the two sides discussed ways to enhance cooperation in their efforts to prevent and combat terrorism and violent extremism.

The delegation also learned about the center’s monitoring and analysis mechanisms, the techniques it use and the models it is creating and developing, as well as the most prominent advanced technologies in the field.


Saudi Arabia to take part in G20 digital economy event

Photo/Shutterstock
Photo/Shutterstock
Updated 04 August 2021

Saudi Arabia to take part in G20 digital economy event

Photo/Shutterstock
  • Saudi Arabia has realized qualitative achievements in this regard, mainly the unanimous approval of countries on a roadmap to measure and define the digital economy

TRIESTE: Saudi Arabia is taking part in a G20 digital economy event on Aug. 5.
The G20 Digital Economy Ministers Meeting will discuss key issues related to digital transformation ahead of a final communique that will be endorsed by heads of states and governments at the Rome Summit.
It is an extension of the role played by Saudi Arabia during its G20 presidency last year. The Kingdom aims to focus on empowering people, protecting the planet and forming new horizons.
Saudi Arabia has realized qualitative achievements in this regard, mainly the unanimous approval of countries on a roadmap to measure and define the digital economy, in addition to adopting artificial intelligence principles.
Communication and Information Minister Abdullah Al-Swaha is scheduled to take part in the event.
The G20 aims to take the lead in ensuring a swift international response to the COVID-19 pandemic – able to provide equitable, worldwide access to diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines – while building up resilience to future health-related shocks.
Each G20 presidency includes the organization of ministerial meetings on each of the main focus areas of the forum. These meetings are important opportunities to discuss and further develop issues of international relevance.


Students in Saudi Arabia urged to book COVID-19 vaccine appointments

Students can access the vaccine appointment service via the Sehhaty or Tawakkalna apps. (SPA)
Students can access the vaccine appointment service via the Sehhaty or Tawakkalna apps. (SPA)
Updated 04 August 2021

Students in Saudi Arabia urged to book COVID-19 vaccine appointments

Students can access the vaccine appointment service via the Sehhaty or Tawakkalna apps. (SPA)
  • Only fully jabbed pupils allowed to return to the classroom

JEDDAH: Students aged 12-18 are being urged to book their first COVID-19 jab, with the Ministry of Health saying that appointments were available for them.

The appointment allocation follows the Kingdom’s announcement that only fully jabbed pupils could return to the classroom when the new school year begins.
Students must receive the first shot before Aug. 8 in order to have the second before the first semester of the new academic year. The specified period between the two doses is three weeks.
They can access the appointment service through the Sehhaty or Tawakkalna apps.
The ministry also said that a quarter of the Kingdom’s population was fully vaccinated. The total number of people who have been jabbed in the country is 28,033,852, including 1,488,193 who are elderly.

FASTFACTS

• Saudi Arabia reported 1,075 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday.

• The death toll has risen to 8,270 following 11 more virus-related fatalities.

Saudi Arabia on Tuesday reported 11 more COVID-19-related deaths, taking the death toll to 8,270. There were 1,075 new cases reported, increasing the total number of infections to 528,952. There are 10,575 active cases, of which 1,433 are critical.
Of the newly recorded cases, 209 were in Makkah, 188 were in the Eastern Province, 184 were in Riyadh, and 70 were in Madinah. There have been a further 1,113 recoveries, bringing this total to 510,107.
Saudi Arabia has so far conducted more 25.33 million PCR tests, with 110,254 carried out in the past 24 hours.
Testing hubs and treatment centers throughout the country have dealt with hundreds of thousands of people since the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak.
Taakad centers provide COVID-19 testing for those who show no or only mild symptoms or believe they have come into contact with an infected individual. Tetamman clinics offer treatment and advice to those with virus symptoms such as fever, loss of taste and smell, and breathing difficulties.
Appointments for both services can be made on Sehhaty.
In Hafr Al-Batin governorate, Tetamman clinics have provided services to 75,310 people so far through three clinics: Hafr Al-Batin Central Hospital, Qaisumah General Hospital, and the Abu Mousa Alashari Health Center.


Efforts to fight global terrorism discussed

Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council Nayef Falah al-Hajraf gestures during a news conference at the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) 41st Summit in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia January 5, 2021. (REUTERS)
Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council Nayef Falah al-Hajraf gestures during a news conference at the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) 41st Summit in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia January 5, 2021. (REUTERS)
Updated 04 August 2021

Efforts to fight global terrorism discussed

Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council Nayef Falah al-Hajraf gestures during a news conference at the Gulf Cooperation Council's (GCC) 41st Summit in Al-Ula, Saudi Arabia January 5, 2021. (REUTERS)
  • The council focuses on enhancing capacities of member states and private organizations in preventing and mitigating the misuse of technological developments by terrorists and extremists

RIYADH: Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajjraf, secretary-general of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), met with Jehangir Khan, director of the UN Counter-Terrorism Center (UNCCT).
During the meeting, they reviewed the efforts of the GCC in combating terrorism.
Al-Hajjraf affirmed the council’s continuous support for the UN in combating crimes of terrorism and extremism, in addition to strengthening their cooperation while achieving security and peace in the world.
A day earlier, Khan met with Dr. Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al-Rabeeah, adviser at the Royal Court and supervisor general of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSRelief).
The UN Security Council has adopted additional resolutions, often under Chapter VII, to address new avenues of terrorist financing, including by targeting the nexus between terrorists and organized crime groups and tackling fundraising through kidnapping for ransom.
The council focuses on enhancing capacities of member states and private organizations in preventing and mitigating the misuse of technological developments by terrorists and extremists.