As the economic downturn forces the hospitality industry into a holding pattern, the smart money is looking for fresh opportunities in fresh markets. On the supply side, Saudi Arabia is now stating its case as a Kingdom of exciting investment possibilities fit for these turbulent times.
After decades tough travel restrictions, the Kingdom has laid out plans to double both its tourism visitors and hotel rooms over the next decade.
“We want to open up Saudi Arabia to the world,” said HRH Prince Sultan Bin Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, speaking at on the first day of the Arabian Hotel Investment Conference in Dubai. “It is a land of great sands, sights, smells and hotels.”
The long-term vision for its hospitality sector estimates visitor numbers will rise from 47 million in 2008 to 88 million by 2020, while the number of hotel rooms would rise from 117,097 to 254,310.
“I think the numbers will be even more than these (prudent) estimates,” said Prince Sultan who is President & Chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism & Antiquities.
SCTA’s efforts are being accompanied by a relaxing of visa restrictions, as well as full government support and incentives to diversity Saudi tourism from just religious tourism to destination and MICE travel.
“We are sure that hotel investment will be one of the biggest growth areas in Saudi Arabia as tourism is accepted on the national agenda.”
Prince Sultan pointed to a series of developments already underway in the Kingdom. “In Jeddah alone, there is a project with Solidere to redevelop the historic centre while we have 17km of untouched beach front in the city centre,” he said.
“We are working on the historic ports of the Red Sea and the railway connecting western Saudi Arabia to the east coast. The Red Sea will be one of the biggest growth areas with up to 21 new destinations - indeed, we will announce at least one or two of these new projects by the end of this year.”
Other major initiatives include the Al Uqair project in the Eastern Province, the Farasan Islands in Jizan Province where one of five new airports is planned, and Taif, site of another new airport plus the Souk Okaz project with heritage and meeting facilities.
To diversify the tourism product, Prince Sultan said other initiatives included the launch of eco-lodges and farm hotels, as well as heritage accommodation. “We have already started licensing several projects in these areas, and are talking to some of the major hotel chains about this side of things.
But the prince also cautioned that the Kingdom would remain conservative in its approach.
“Our goal is to make our culture welcome, but not to open the floodgates for unrestricted tourism,” he said. “Our mandate is to ensure that tourism adds value to the culture, our society and to our economy.”
The Arabian Hotel Investment Conference runs from 2-4 May 2009 at Dubai’s Madinat Jumeirah Convention Centre.