Saudi tourism puts on the Ritz in Riyadh
From the vantage point of the lobby of the Ritz Carlton in Riyadh, the post-pandemic world looks an increasingly optimistic place.
While not as bustling as when the famed hotel and King Abdulaziz Conference Center is packed to the gunwales for the Future Investment Initiative (FII), the event staged there this week — the Tourism Recovery Summit (TRS) — drew a large and appreciative crowd, all of them glad, like me, to be back at face-to-face meetings after months of soulless Zoom.
After my first trip back to the Kingdom since February 2020, here are five things that I learned from the event.
1 The world, as viewed from Saudi Arabia, is gradually but assuredly awakening from the pandemic nightmare. The 200 plus attendees at the TRS came from the four corners of the earth, and all reported that conditions in their industry — tourism and travel — were improving after the worst year in memory. The audience gave big shout-outs in particular to Jamaica and Greece for the self-confidence with which they advertised their countries’ attractions — respectively, as the home of the best music in the world and the birthplace of civilization. Bravo for bravado.
2 While tourism looks set to improve steadily from here on, with increasing numbers of countries opening up their borders as the global vaccination rollout gathers pace, the industry will witness profound and permanent after effects. Upmarket tourism will probably command a premium for those willing and able to pay the prices, while the mass market will have to find new ways to attract people in numbers. The summit agreed that business travel was probably going to be the sector that took longest to recover and would have to adapt more to the post-pandemic realities. Regardless of that, business class travel from Dubai to Riyadh was a welcome treat.
3 Saudi Arabia is serious about tourism. The goal of attracting 100 million visits by 2030 is ambitious and demanding, but it is a symbol of the Kingdom’s determination to build on its commanding position as the global leader in religious tourism. Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb was adamant that these goals could and would be achieved, while Nadhmi Al-Nasr, the chief executive of NEOM, one of the megaprojects that has a big tourism element, made light of the plans to build 20 new hotels per year in the new urban hub up to 2030. To dare is to do, as somebody else once said.
4 The decision by the UN World Tourism Organization to locate its new Middle East regional headquarters in Riyadh is a coup for the Kingdom, and a recognition by the global industry of the seriousness of Saudi intent. At a glittering gala dinner at the Tuwaiq Palace in the capital’s diplomatic quarter, the expected formal tributes were paid by the 13 Middle East countries that will send representatives to the brand new WTO complex, but more telling was the dinner table comment by an executive from one of Saudi Arabia’s big regional rivals: “They mean it, don’t they,” he said, adding that Saudi Arabia had all the ingredients to become the leading tourism destination in the Middle East — as long as Vision 2030’s social and cultural reforms are maintained.
5 The Ritz Carlton complex remains a great place to do business but is not resting on its laurels in the wake of COVID-19. It’s not just the fast and efficient PCR testing and other safety measures in dedicated areas of the hotel. Construction is going on at the hotel and conference center site near the Diplomatic Quarter to expand its facilities, to make sure it remains the premier venue for forums, summits and conferences in the Kingdom. The word is that it’s almost impossible to book the venue for events during the fourth quarter of the year, when the pace of business activity in Saudi Arabia will pick up once again and when the FII will hopefully be back in full swing. “Putting on the Ritz” looks certain to become a thing again in the post-pandemic world.
• Frank Kane is an award-winning business journalist based in Dubai. Twitter: @frankkanedubai