RIYADH: As Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 reform plan celebrates its fifth anniversary, citizens nationwide are looking at the many ways the ambitious plan has affected their day-to-day lives.
The overarching goal of the plan, to move the Kingdom away from an oil-based economy, has had the entire nation looking toward new industries and re-evaluating their perceptions of how Saudi Arabia could achieve success, and one of the biggest and most successful industries has been tourism and hospitality.
For some Saudis, working in the hospitality sector is a dream they have harbored for a long time, and they have taken great pains to find ways to break into the field. But some, like industry pioneer Sara Al-Marghalani, just “stumbled” into the industry almost by accident.
Al-Marghalani initially dreamt of a career in academia, even going so far as to obtain a master’s degree in linguistics to achieve that goal. However, things changed when she became the first Saudi to land a job in the hospitality sector of the Maldives.
An unexpected interview for a banquet coordinator position with a local hotel group started what would become her new passion, working in a field that very few Saudis had ventured into.
“I didn’t anticipate how fast-paced and dynamic life would be working with hotels and the hospitality industry, or how much my life would change during my career in tourism,” she told Arab News.
Within a few months of landing the job, she found her ambitions shifting focus, especially after a rapid promotion to sales executive as a result of her newfound passion. And when her direct manager applied for a general manager’s position in the Maldives, he asked her to join him as part of his team.
“I received notice from the Maldives government and the Saudi Embassy that I would be the first Saudi citizen to work in the hospitality industry in the Maldives,” she said. “I lived and worked as a guest relations officer on a small island with a respected Maldivian hotel company called Coco Collection for nearly two years.”
Al-Marghalani said that the experience seemed to trigger “endless opportunities” for learning, and she continued to climb up the hotel management ranks.
She was later promoted to front office supervisor at the German hotel company Seaside Finolhu, where she spent a further 18 months.
One of the highlights of the experience for her was introducing herself to the guests at the resorts, who came from many countries worldwide. Most reacted with amazement when she said she came from Saudi Arabia and they asked a lot of questions.
“I told them of the Kingdom’s hidden treasures and its natural beauty, as well as its significant tourism potential,” she said. “This was before Saudi Arabia announced plans to economically diversify into tourism and promote its beautiful destinations. Tourists in the Maldives were eager to know what was hidden in Saudi Arabia and were enthusiastic to discover it for themselves.”
It is a dream to play a part in the world’s most ambitious regenerative tourism project and support the growth of Saudi tourism.
It was this passion that prompted her to return to the Kingdom and join up with the Red Sea Development Co. as a hotel front office assistant manager, something she said makes her incredibly proud and excited.
“It is a dream to play a part in the world’s most ambitious regenerative tourism project and support the growth of Saudi tourism,” she said. “I had planned to continue my work abroad in the Maldives, but after hearing about this luxury project and understanding its high standards in sustainability, as well as the regenerative approach to tourism, I had no other option but to come back and be a part of this ambitious team.”
Al-Marghanlani said that after several years working in the Maldives, one of the top luxury travel destinations in the world, she has brought back “endless emotions of passion and drive” and believes that she can be a driving force of change in the Kingdom’s hospitality sector.
“I have the experience to further the vision of the developer in creating a new luxury resort destination here in our Kingdom. I think I’ve grasped the concept of what a luxury resort is, what it means and how it operates. I gained invaluable insight into what guests need and how can we meet the high expectations,” she said.
Al-Marghalani also said that the tourism and hospitality industry has the potential to boom here in the Kingdom.
“As we become a globalized society, more and more people find passion in traveling. We are one of the few countries left which, up until now, has been relatively unexplored and I believe this is an advantage for us. Saudi Arabia has an incredible history and countless hidden treasures, which include the Red Sea itself, our unexplored massive deserts, and our extraordinary and hospitable people,” she said.
The Ministry of Tourism said in December that domestic tourism had exceeded expectations, despite the pandemic and 2020 being, in the words of the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), “the worst year on record in the history of tourism.”
Saudi Minister of Tourism Ahmed Al-Khateeb told Bloomberg in September that a sudden surge in domestic travel — 50 percent more than officials had projected — helped to save businesses and jobs, as well as boost the economy.
Saudis’ attitudes toward the industry are beginning to change as well. A December research study commissioned by the Red Sea Development Co. found that 90 percent of Saudi youth surveyed were interested in tourism and hospitality jobs.
The study also stated that Saudi youth were starting to acknowledge the vital role that tourism and hospitality will play in the country’s new diversified economy.