The Business Year

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SAUDI ARABIA - Tourism

Ahmad Arab

Deputy Minister, Strategic Planning & Business Intelligence, Ministry of Tourism

Bio

Ahmad Arab has been the Deputy Minister for Strategic Planning & Business Intelligence at the Ministry of Tourism since 2021, as well as a board member of both Jeddah Airport Company and the Air Connectivity Program. In addition to being a Harvard and INSEAD alumni, he holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals. Previously, he held a number of senior leadership positions including deputy governor for strategy at the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA), secretary-general of the National Investment Promotion Committee (also at SAGIA), general manager of projects and planning at the Communications and Information Technology Commission, and VP for Arab League ICT Strategy Development at the League of Arab States.

"Human capital is a critical pillar for any sector. When it comes to tourism, this criticality rises exponentially as the front liners represent a cornerstone of our sector."

Ahmad Arab, Deputy Minister, Strategic Planning & Business Intelligence at the Ministry of Tourism, talks to TBY about the country’s bold plan to attract 100 million tourists by 2030.

Saudi Arabia aims to attract 100 million tourists a year by 2030. What key areas is the ministry currently working on to hit this ambitious target?

I have been part of Vision 2030 since its inception, and one of its biggest levers is the diversification of the economy. In September 2019, the Ministry of Tourism launched the National Tourism Strategy, which was followed by the introduction of the E-visa or visa on arrival for tourists for the first time. We have set three ambitious targets to be achieved by 2030: attracting 100 million overnight visits per year, creating 1 million jobs in the sector, and increasing the tourism sector’s contribution to the national GDP to 10%. Unfortunately, COVID-19 hit about four months after we opened up the country. Still, this gave us an opportunity to look inward rather than outward. Since mid-2021, we have worked on the tourism ecosystem to define the destination clusters and their propositions, as well as defining the visitor journey from inspiration level until they return home. As part of this process, we have identified both the positive and negative aspects of the tourism experience, as well as the gaps from demand side that can help improve on these. We defined the necessary steps, worked on managing satisfaction, gained further insights, and improved supply.

SMEs are the backbone of every segment of the national economy, including tourism. How is the ministry positioned to foster and support the development of SMEs in the sector?

Human capital is a critical pillar for any sector. When it comes to tourism, this criticality rises exponentially as the front liners represent a cornerstone of our sector. We are developing the skillsets of people working in the tourism sector and have launched specific programs including Hafawa, concierge and secondment programs, and the Master Executive Program. Referring to SMEs, it has a major contribution to the sector. We have programs such as the Activator, where we scale up tourism SMEs through coaching and mentoring. We are 100% aligned in the ecosystem to foster SMEs and are collaborating with Tourism Development Fund (TDF) and working on an SME hub. The ministry has also collaborated with UNWTO to create the Tourism Recovery Summit, signaling we are well-positioned to push the sector forward.

The new UNWTO Regional Office for the Middle East was officially inaugurated in Riyadh in 2021. What is the importance of hosting such a relevant institution within the global tourism industry?

It is important for such an organization to be based here. The presence of the UNWTO regional office in KSA reiterates the significance of tourism as a priority for the Kingdom. We want to help the sector across the region, not only in Saudi Arabia. Tourism is a value chain. The positioning of the organization is not a silo, but rather about working with all government entities to push the sector, both locally and regionally. Sustainability is also a priority for Saudi Arabia, as it is for the whole world. We want tourism to be part of the solution to the global problem of greenhouse emissions. With this in mind, we initiate a multilateral and multi-stakeholder platform. In October 2021, we inaugurated and launched the Sustainable Tourism Global Center (STGC), which can help government entities, academia, international organizations, SMEs, and travelers in sustainability.

What are your short-term targets and objectives on your agenda?

We seek to focus on our tourism offerings and are working with destinations to deliver this. We want travelers to have unforgettable pleasant experiences. We are currently unlocking destinations, and this summer focused on Abha, Asir, and Jeddah. We are also planning a winter campaign and trying to align all our efforts with upcoming events such as the World Cup. In 2021, we reached an all-time record for domestic visitors, and I expect amazing results for this year as well.

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