Saudi Arabia leads in commitment to sustainable tourism
Saudi Arabia has become a “must-see destination”, Zurab Pololikashvili, secretary-general of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation, said in Riyadh during the opening ceremony of World Tourism Day this weekend.
“This is a country that always looks forward, and in big ways,” he continued. “Saudi Arabia is now the second-biggest place for foreign direct investment projects in all the Middle East and Africa. I’m proud to say we count on the support of Saudi Arabia.”
The UNWTO has celebrated World Tourism Day in September since 1980. Every year, world leaders meet to discuss objectives and milestones to further boost the tourism sector, and this year was no different as about 500 top officials from 145 countries convened at the Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh to talk about the industry’s latest developments, with a focus on sustainability, humanity and prosperity.
“This World Tourism Day, we focus on the vital need to invest in building a more sustainable sector for people, planet and prosperity,” said Pololikashvili. “The day also makes clear why UNWTO underscores the need for investment in education and for greater innovation as the foundations for long-term growth and transformation.”
The kingdom’s dynamic tourism industry was also under the microscope, as leaders congratulated the country on its vision and discussed issues of climate change, governance and empowering people across the world.
Saudi Arabia is the chair of the UNWTO Executive Council this year as Riyadh is home to the organisation’s first regional office for the Middle East. Last year, Saudi Arabia also hosted the 116th session of the UNWTO Executive Council with a focus on advancing sustainability across the board, from governance to investing in infrastructure and youth.
The fastest growth in the Middle East
Around the world, the tourism sector accounts for 1 in 10 jobs, the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) said, although it’s an industry that was significantly affected by the pandemic. Saudi Arabia, however, has seen unprecedented growth over the past few years, since it opened its borders to recreational visitors.
“Since embarking on our tourism journey, Saudi Arabia has been committed to enhancing the sector and generating an impact that extends beyond borders,” said Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Tourism Ahmed Al Khateeb.
Fahd Hamidaddin, chief executive of Saudi Tourism Authority, said the country is “blessed to experience a growth like no other”.
“The last seven months have seen a record-breaking growth for Saudi Arabia. We are experiencing an economic revolution … and all of this is a manifestation of a new leadership,” he said.
The value of the tourism sector in Saudi Arabia is expected to reach $93.4 billion in 2023, said Arnold Donald, chairman of WTTC. He said it makes up 10 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s GDP and they expect the sector to “grow at the fastest pace in the Middle East”.
By 2030, the country hopes to welcome more than 100 million visitors annually.
The sector will also add one million jobs over the next 10 years, the Ministry of Tourism announced earlier this month. At the event, Al Khateeb also unveiled plans for the Riyadh School for Tourism and Hospitality, an ambitious project that will cost more than $1 billion. It aims to be a student-centric facility, which will span five million square metres in Qiddiya and offer a hybrid curriculum that aims to bridge the global tourism skills gap.
“The Riyadh School of Tourism and Hospitality is Saudi Arabia’s gift to the world,” he said. “Through its pioneering curriculum, that will offer comprehensive higher education courses covering all aspects of the tourism and hospitality industry, the school represents Saudi Arabia’s commitment to providing comprehensive, progressive education that empowers individuals, both domestically and internationally.
“As we invest in the next generation of tourism professionals, we are not only securing the industry’s future, but also fostering a legacy of excellence that will drive prosperity, stimulate individual growth of citizens and foster cultural exchange for years to come.”
Saudi Vision 2030 focuses on sustainability and regenerative tourism
The $500 billion megacity Neom in Tabuk, north-western Saudi Arabia, will be the country’s first city to have zero carbon emissions and 95 per cent of the development will remain untouched for nature and conservation.
In a major step in Saudi Arabia’s shift away from an oil-based economy, Neom will also be powered entirely by clean energy, with no carbon-emitting vehicles.
Elsewhere, Red Sea Global is pioneering regenerative tourism with its Red Sea project, located on Saudi Arabia’s western coast, as it aims to preserve the kingdom’s pristine and untouched waters, coast and to further enhance coral reefs. The development, which is already in the first stage of opening, spans 28,000 square kilometres of land, including an archipelago of more than 90 islands, promising turquoise-lined coastlines, unrivalled marine life and a variety of upscale accommodation options.
The under-construction King Salman International Airport in Riyadh will also incorporate green technology in its design and aims to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) platinum certification, the Saudi Press Agency said, which means it generates less waste, consumes less energy, water and other resources, making it more resilient and environmentally friendly.
A sustainable hospitality industry
Hotels in the kingdom have also aligned with the Saudi Vision 2030, to lead and build with the most sustainable practices.
Guests are paying more attention than ever to how a hotel leaves its mark on the world around it, with an increasing number deciding to book a stay based on a property’s carbon footprint and how it supports the communities in which it operates, said Haitham Mattar, managing director at IHG Hotels & Resorts, which currently operates 40 hotels across Saudi Arabia.
“New destinations such as the Red Sea Development and Neom, for example, are incorporating key initiatives to ensure environmental sustainability.
“With a massive footprint across the globe, the tourism and hospitality sectors play an important role in working towards a sustainable future. As one of the world’s leading hotel companies, we embrace our responsibility and opportunity to make a positive difference and help shape the future of responsible travel.”
Guenter Gebhard, regional vice president and general manager at the Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh, told The National on the sidelines at World Tourism Day that the hotel takes its sustainability initiatives seriously. “The hotel does not use plastic water bottles, we only use glass. We will have a hydroponic plantation, we will start growing tomato, salads, herbs and more higher up rather than on ground,” he explained.
“We have changed our lighting systems into LED to reduce our electricity load and we intend to do the same with ACs,” he added. “We’re just finishing off our water bottling plant, which will go active hopefully by either December this year or January of next year. That means we’re not even bringing water in any more. We have our own water purification system – that will then be bottled as still and sparkling and will go out into the restaurants and into the rooms. This will be free.”
Radisson Hotel Group also aims to remain steadfast in its commitment to a sustainable future, with a goal to become net zero by 2050, said Basel Talal, the group’s managing director for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Levant.
Park Inn by Radisson Makkah Al Naseem hotel, for example, utilises a state-of-the-art food recycling system, transforming 75kg of daily food waste into organic compost, reducing waste volume by about 90 per cent.
“It is imperative to strategise on how tourism can be a catalyst for fostering opportunities for people, spearheading a green transformation, and manifesting sustainability for the planet, thus paving the way for inclusive prosperity,” said Talal.