Enhancing tourism collaboration between India & Saudi Arabia
HE Dr Ausaf Sayeed, Ambassador of India to Saudi Arabia, explains why, as strategic partners, India and Saudi Arabia have a lot to gain from boosting their respective tourism sectors through mutual collaboration post-pandemic. He further elaborates on the promise that the two countries offer in tourism and how they can explore greater synergies.
The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic across the world has caused widespread distress to practically every nation across the globe, and the most affected sectors were travel, tourism and hospitality. In fact, the UN World Tourism Organization, UNWTO described 2020 as ‘the worst year on record in the history of tourism’.
As various countries are taking measures to ease restrictions and open up their economies, there is hope that travel and tourism industry would eventually revive, although gradually. In just about every aspect of economy and trade, the pandemic has served to highlight the criticality of mutual cooperation among nations to overcome this challenge, and the tourism sector is no different.
As critical partners on the global stage, India and Saudi Arabia had already begun to develop mechanisms to boost bilateral tourism numbers before the pandemic, in accordance with the untapped potential. By deepening this mutual collaboration, there is a lot they can achieve post-pandemic to regain the momentum and precipitate a new growth trajectory. This is the precise focus of my column.
Saudi Arabia and India became strategic partners in October 2019 by forming the Strategic Partnership Council during the visit of PM Shri Narendra Modi to Riyadh. It is co-chaired by two leaders – His Royal Highness Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman on the Saudi side and the Prime Minister on the Indian side.
The two countries also entered into an MoU in the field of tourism in February 2019, on the sidelines of the visit of the Crown Prince to India. This is a significant MoU because inter alia, it ensures development of sustainable tourism infrastructure through sharing of technology and best practices, organising tourism events, promoting various forms of tourism and encouraging mutual investments in tourism sectors of both countries.
Under this backdrop, I have structured my column into two sub-topics – one, how can Indian tourism and hospitality majors take advantage of the burgeoning tourism industry in the kingdom, and on the other hand, how can the Indian tourism industry encourage more Saudi tourists to visit India and promote Saudi investments in the Indian tourism industry?
Saudi tourism – Dawn of a new era
As we all are aware, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been handling religious tourism since centuries, while mainstream tourism was relatively less prominent. Earlier, tourism was handled by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, and the Ministry of Tourism actually came into existence only in February 2020.
Significantly, a few months after the agreement was signed with India in February 2019, the Kingdom introduced the E-visa or visa-on-arrival system in September 2019, where people from 49 different countries can apply for visa ahead of time or get it on arrival at the airport. With this scheme, more than 500,000 visas had been issued, and the Kingdom was gearing up for a big leap before, of course, the pandemic hit.
Image source: Shutterstock; Edge of the world, a natural landmark in Saudi Arabia.
The important factor to consider from the Kingdom’s perspective is the Vision 2030 or the National Transformation Program, which seeks to market the Kingdom as a regional and global tourist hub. Saudi Arabia is seeking to increase tourist footfalls to around 100 million by 2030 from the current figure of around 20 million.
Even today, the footfalls are the second highest in the MENA region after the UAE. This, of course, also hinges on religious tourism, wherein the Kingdom plans to attract around 30 million religious travelers annually by 2030, including 5 million Haj pilgrims from 2 million currently. Religious tourism constitutes a significant proportion of almost around 2.7% of the GDP, with around US$ 20 billion in revenues during 2018. So, the tourism sector currently accounts for 3.4% of Saudi Arabia’s GDP, but is projected to increase to around 10% by 2030 and create around 1 million new jobs.
This initiative is part of the overall strategy of the Kingdom to diversify its economy away from oil. As the second largest revenue generator after oil, tourism assumes great significance. The Kingdom has been making significant investments in the tourism sector despite the pandemic.
In June 2020, a Tourism Development Fund was created with a capital of US$ 4 billion, to promote the tourism industry. The Kingdom organized a Tourism Recovery Summit in May 2021. On the sidelines, the World Tourism Organization, UNWTO opened its first regional office in Riyadh, which was the first office outside of Madrid. Simultaneously, an International Tourism Academy was also created here. The Kingdom pledged about US$ 100 million for the tourism community initiative with the World Bank.
As far as tourism attractiveness is concerned, there are thousands of historical sites in the Kingdom, with as many as five UNESCO recognized areas. The country has diverse climatic zones from coastal areas bordering the Red Sea, to the huge span of the Rub’ al Khali desert to even hill stations like Abha.
The Kingdom has also come up with several mega projects like the NEOM City, which is a US$ 500 billion project. It will have The Line, a futuristic city of 1 million people, 170 kilometers long, which will have no cars and zero carbon emissions.
Similarly, you have the Red Sea Project, which would comprise of about 50 hotels and 8,000 rooms across 22 different islands. The Qiddiya Entertainment Complex will have a size equivalent to Singapore right within Riyadh, with several sports and wellness activities including the Six Flags Qiddiya theme park. There is also huge activity in the form of introducing cruises.
Saudi Arabia is also becoming an important destination for sporting events. And we are also engaging with them to promote cricket in a big way here. There is considerable interest to also expand collaboration in entertainment between the two sides. The Kingdom is also keen to have movie shootings including Bollywood movies.
At the same time, the Kingdom is expanding its transportation infrastructure. In September 2019, the King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah Terminal 1 was inaugurated, which is a huge span of 810,000 square meters and can handle around 30 million passengers. It is one of the biggest airports in the Middle East. Similarly, there are plans to expand the King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh. Recently, His Royal Highness Crown Prince announced plans for a new national airline to primarily look after interests of tourists and business travelers, while the existing national carrier Saudia will focus more on Haj and Umrah.
Likewise, there is a plan for creating a land bridge between the western province, the coastal areas bordering the Red Sea and Riyadh, ensuring massive rail connectivity. With all this, the Kingdom plans to target international passenger traffic, aimed at making it the fifth largest air transit hub using sixth-freedom rights. The Kingdom announced that it is expected to attract US$ 147 billion in investments in transport and logistics. The sovereign Public Investment Fund will contribute 35%, while the rest will come from the private sector.
Now the Kingdom is aiming to attract new tourism investments worth around US$ 58 billion by 2023, which could increase to US$ 133 billion by the end of the decade.
As the Kingdom is focused on boosting domestic and international tourism, it promises several opportunities for investment in tourism infrastructure, joint development of tourist projects and formation of companies or alliances that can cater to both inward and outward tourism of both countries.
The Oberoi Group operates the Medina Oberoi. It is also building luxury resorts in the Diriyah heritage complex, besides a five star hotel in Makkah. The Taj group is also planning to open a seven star hotel in Makkah, while Oyo Hotels has also established its presence in the Kingdom. Haj and Umrah pilgrims, with the new regulations, can now combine their religious pilgrimage with regular tourism during their stay in the Kingdom.
India sent around 800,000 Umrah pilgrims and 200,000 Hajj pilgrims during 2019, forming a critical market for the Saudi tourism sector. The Indian Embassy in Saudi Arabia has raised the issue of including potential Indian tourists in the visa on arrival scheme with the Saudi Government. It is well known that the Indian outbound tourists accounted for 22.5 million worldwide tourists in 2018, according to UNWTO, and this figure is expected to reach around 50 million by 2022.
Also, Indian tourists are considered among the world’s highest spenders per visit made abroad. An average Indian spends around US$ 1,200 per visit, as compared to around US$ 700 by an American or US$ 500 by a British tourist. Indian visitor spending globally is also expected to increase from the current level of US$ 23 billion to around US$ 45 billion by 2024. GCC alone is expected to receive around 10 million Indian tourists by 2024. So, it makes sense to facilitate Indians to come and enjoy the tourism infrastructure and facilities in the kingdom.
Indian tourism: Customise packages for Saudi Arabia
The numbers of Saudi tourists to India is at around 50,000, way below the potential. Post-COVID, we are certainly looking forward to increasing the number. Around 50% of the Kingdom’s population is young and below 30 years of age. Saudi citizens are discerning tourists, who prefer family oriented tourist places with high quality of accommodation, food and retail services. So, India should ensure that culture and entertainment go hand in hand with tourism, because these aspects attract the young population.
Image source: Shutterstock; the ancient Indian tradition of yoga is popular across the world
We need to capitalize on the popularity of Indian cuisine and Bollywood, as well as the rich Islamic heritage in India. Generally, we market destinations or the country as Incredible India. But what is more important is to have tailor-made tourist packages focused on the Middle East, centering around medical tourism, ecotourism, nature tourism and heritage tourism.
The popularity of yoga in the Kingdom can also be one of the factors, which we could consider. Many Saudis also go to explore alternate forms of medicines, especially in Kerala. I am aware that there are many hospitals in India, which have employed Arabic speaking staff and are offering value added services like assistance in shopping and other tourism, post medical treatment. So such innovative methods could also be explored.
We know that a large number of Saudi tourists go to Southeast Asian destinations, but with its increased connectivity to this region, India can become a transit hub. They can spend time in India for tourism, leisure tourism, heritage tourism, and then of course, go further ahead. I think that the important aspect here is to have customized packages centered around Middle East tourist arrivals. Generally, we are only marketing India as a destination. But we need to rope in other tour operators and carriers, so that packages are designed specifically for Saudi Arabia.
As far as the government is concerned, we have eased the visa process. Generally, within 72 hours, any Saudi family can, without visiting the Embassy or the Consulate, obtain multiple entry visas, or tourist visas to India. So I believe that would be something very encouraging for anyone desirous of exploring.
In a recent MoU between India and Saudi Arabia in the civil aviation sector, bilateral air capacity has also been increased about 50,000 seats. So there is ample scope to increase direct flights. Now issue of visas to Saudi nationals has been considerably liberalized and we are issuing five-year tourist and business visas very easily.
As tourism revival is very critical for the economies, we need to have close collaboration and cooperation between various countries with the involvement of all stakeholders like the airline industry, tourism ministries, tour operators and hotels. I would like to urge Saudi authorities to lift all travel restrictions between India and the Kingdom and work out a mechanism, whereby vaccinated persons could travel directly to the Kingdom either for Hajj, Umrah, tourism, taking back their jobs or rejoin their families. This is very essential to restore regular traffic between the two countries, so that national carriers could fly to full capacity. This would also give a major boost to the economies of our two countries.
The author is present Ambassador of India to Saudi Arabia. Views expressed are personal. Usual disclaimers apply.