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Geoffrey Kent backs Saudi Arabia’s tourism plans

Travel entrepreneur Geoffrey Kent has thrown his weight behind Saudi Arabia’s plans to establish itself as a new destination for travellers over the coming decade.

The Kenyan born founder and co-chairman of Abercrombie & Kent says the kingdom is an exciting new destination for his firm’s market of affluent travellers looking for somewhere different to visit.

Kent, speaking at a ‘Journeys in Arabia’ webinar to launch to UK and Irish travel companies, said the firm intends to set up its own DMC as Saudi opens up to leisure visitors.

“From our perspective I’m wildly enthusiastic, always have been about Saudi,” said Kent, who lived in the country for a period in the 1970s.

He recently returned after the Gulf state launched a new e-visa programme as part of an opening up of the country to foreign visitors under its Vision 2030 programme.

“Since the seventies, nothing has changed,” Kent said. “It’s stayed the same over time. I have travelled everywhere, to 158 countries, and for me and my guests this is something new.

“I will actually lead one or two trips this year…with my people to really show them what Saudi has to offer. Then word of mouth will do the rest.”

After the e-visa was launched in 2019, and before Covid, 400,000 were approved despite early issues which saw many applications rejected.

As part of Saudi’s Vision 2030 the country has identified three core sectors – leisure, spiritual travel, and business events and MICE – and 15 priority source markets, including the UK and Ireland.

It is estimated it will need to increase its stock of hotel rooms by 800,000 if it is to meet its targets of 100 million visits and the creation of two million tourism jobs.

Haitham Mattar, chief commercial officer of the Saudi Tourism Authority, said: “Our overall national tourism strategy focuses on delivering growth in the next 10 years. Our growth targets are quite ambitious.

“UK travellers are very experienced, they travel often, have multiple trips per year and are quite resilient and so will be one of the first markets to bounce back.”

Deepak Nangla, managing director of specialist UK operator Brightsun Travel, said the e-visa will see an initial boom in spiritual tourism as well as in the VFR [Visiting Friends and Relatives] market.

“We have a readymade market of 3.3 million Muslims in the UK. Saudi has an immense amount to offer. Within the next five to ten years it will be showcasing that to the rest of the world.”

Virginia Messina, World Travel and Tourism Council managing director, said the country was already starting to see the impact of opening to tourism in 2019.

“Travel and tourism employs more than 50% women and youth. It’s an opportunity to transform communities and destinations.

“And [Saudi Arabia] is a great opportunity for the travel trade as a completely undiscovered, unexplored destination.”

Fahd Hamidaddin chief executive of the Saudi Tourism Authority said Saudi Arabia currently has only 5% global awareness as a destination.

And he said the country will address this by embracing the digital age. “Travel is preparing for a rebound as the world gets the Covid pandemic under control,” he said.

“Travellers are thinking about how to spend their vacation time, about visiting safe and less crowded destinations.

“We need to do things differently, the world has changed almost beyond recognition and the pandemic has shown us how important it is to be agile and responsive.”

Hamidaddin said Saudi Arabia will take a “Silicon Valley” approach to opening up tourism to give it a “competitive edge”.

This will see the country create a digital DMO [Destination Management Organisation] that will provide approved syndicated information and content to trade partners worldwide.

“Today, more than ever people like inspiration and to see places unseen and undiscovered, the unknown.

“Through partnerships and shared relationships we will create a new disruptive way of working together.

“Together we will create a place for Arabia in the hearts and minds of travellers. We will create new business opportunities and we will work together.”

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