The Middle East needs a louder voice in world tourism
The Gulf is rich in natural wonders, from the rugged mountains of Oman to the wild beauty of Saudi Arabia’s vast Rub Al-Khali, and is also home to a large slice of the world’s most important cultural and historical sites.
Over the past two decades, our part of the world has experienced a period of exceptional development, with most economic sectors positively expanding. The effect of this growth has been positive overall, and one of the strongest performers has been the travel industry.
The sector is moving forward, with tourist arrivals worldwide forecast to hit 2.4 billion by 2027, generating $2.2 trillion of spending. Saudi Arabia is in a strong position to capture its share of the market, with the Middle East set to become the next focal point for global tourism.
The travel sector in the Middle East is forecast to grow about 27 percent this year, slightly behind the global average of nearly 31 percent, following a 51 percent drop in 2020, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. But the WTTC added that the estimated growth for the Middle East is ahead of other regions, such as Europe and Latin America, and represents a year-on-year jump of $36bn into the region’s economy.
Tourism is becoming one of the key pillars that the region’s economies depend on, particularly for those of us in the Middle East and North Africa region, considering our efforts to branch out of our oil-based economies. The Saudi Vision 2030 social and economic reform plan recognizes the role of tourism, targeting 100 million visitors by the end of this decade.
With the impetus placed firmly on the shoulders of tourism and a hugely positive outlook for the sector, it, therefore, came as a surprise to me that the Middle East represents only five percent of the UN’s World Travel Organization affiliate members.
During the 48th meeting of the UNWTO Regional Commission for the Middle East, the Red Sea Development Company was appointed to the UNTWO’s board of affiliate members.
Reviewing the facts and figures all pointing toward the positive future of the tourism sector in the Middle East, it is incredibly important that we back this growth with a strong collective voice on what the region has to offer.
The UNWTO is responsible for promoting tourism as a key driver of economic growth and environmental sustainability. Membership allows countries in our region to make sure that the highest international standards and the best practices in tourist development are set in place, effectively using the tourism industry as a vehicle for social and economic growth.
Membership allows your body to achieve local, regional and global visibility through the channels of the UNWTO. Affiliate membership is a fundamental tool to increase the competitiveness of the private sector in the industry. And it is to this end that I encourage other companies to sign up.
The meeting offered a great opportunity to place a spotlight on the importance of the partnership between the UNWTO and the private sector to unlock the region’s potential and build a resilient and sustainable sector. The UNWTO is the only agency of the UN that has private sector members that participate in its governance structure, and it is this structure that can lead to positive changes as well as making sure our voice is heard on a global platform.
We believe that the private sector can strongly contribute to the development of tourism in the Middle East. So, it is important to increase affiliate membership of the UNWTO with bodies from the Gulf region.
For us, the membership reinforces TRSDC’s continued focus on regeneration to help it achieve the highest international standards. Looking at the giga-projects we are responsible for — The Red Sea and AMAALA — it is clear that a collaborative approach between the private and public sectors can have hugely positive results and set new standards as we work toward welcoming our first guests this time next year.
For example, we chose to be 100 percent off-grid — with no connection to the Kingdom’s national power grid — awarding the Red Sea’s utilities infrastructure to a consortium led by ACWA Power under a design, build, operate and transfer structure. An off-grid solution eliminates impact and pressure on the existing national infrastructure, establishing The Red Sea Project as a completely self-sustained development, taking responsibility for all the inputs and outputs of its utility services.
The project has been set up through a public-private partnership structure. The partnership benefits from the private sector’s ability to introduce the best solutions and latest technologies, in line with TRSDC’s vision. A request for proposal document for another utilities public-private partnership at AMAALA has already been issued to the market, to ensure the development also meets its sustainability ambitions.
The opening of the UNWTO regional office in Saudi Arabia may be an opportunity to increase the effectiveness of promotional strategies in the Middle East. We believe that both the current affiliate members from the region and the member states could support this effort.
We have natural and man-made wonders, we are renowned for our hospitality, and I am certain we have ambition and passion. I encourage you to use your collective voices to promote them.
• Abdullah Alzahrani is executive director – brand and marketing, The Red Sea Development Company.