With an eye on booming tourism, Saudi Arabia rushes to train hotel staff

Riyadh (AFP) – Under the watchful eye of an instructor, Munira al-Rubaian spreads clean bedding in a mock hotel room in the Saudi capital, hoping to land a job in the desert kingdom’s burgeoning tourism industry.

The unemployed 25-year-old is one of thousands of Saudis enrolled in the state-run “Tourism Pioneers” program, which aims to groom 100,000 job seekers for a field that government officials insist is poised to take off. .

At two facilities in Riyadh, Rubaian and other trainees study tasks such as welcoming hotel guests, serving plated food in exclusive restaurants and keeping luxury suites spotlessly clean.

Others are sent abroad for short courses in countries with much more advanced tourism industries, including the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and France.

This army of higher-paid bellboys, cleaners and hospitality managers is expected to help Saudi Arabia, a famously conservative and closed Gulf kingdom that opened its doors to tourism just three years ago, make a positive first impression. time visitors.

The scheme also supports the government’s goal of employing more Saudis in roles traditionally filled by migrant workers.

The niqab-wearing Rubaian signed up with Tourism Pioneers after her own efforts to find a hotel job failed.

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She is optimistic that the experience will help her get a foot in the door.

“I have had the opportunity to learn and improve my skills for employment,” he told AFP.

“Now I will have the experience and self-confidence to deal with people.”

Aim high

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s 37-year-old de facto ruler, is counting on a tourism boom to diversify the economy of the world’s biggest oil exporter.

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In 2019, two years after Prince Mohammed became first in line to the throne, the country introduced tourist visas, but the coronavirus pandemic dashed hopes of an immediate influx.

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Nonetheless, the authorities remain committed to their astonishing goal of attracting 30 million foreign visitors annually by 2030, up from four million last year.

That’s in addition to the 70 million domestic trips conducted each year by Saudis and foreign residents.

Of the combined 100 million tourists expected a year, officials project some 30 million will make religious pilgrimages, mostly to Mecca and Medina, Islam’s two holiest sites, in western Saudi Arabia.

The rest, officials hope, will be partially fueled by new attractions like Al-Ula, a fledgling arts center nestled among ancient Nabataean tombs, and the Red Sea Project, a Maldivian-style tourist destination.

But while the kingdom has in recent years relaxed rules banning cinemas, co-ed concerts and sporting events, other regulations remain in place, including alcohol prohibition, which could affect its appeal.

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In a bid to attract more Arab tourists and better compete with regional rivals like the United Arab Emirates, the Tourism Ministry announced last week that residents of the Gulf Cooperation Council would be able to apply for electronic tourist visas.

That right has already been granted to 49 countries, mainly in Europe and North America.

Overseas Exhibition

To realize their dreams, Saudi leaders recognize the need to dramatically increase the number of people working in tourism.

Some 850,000 currently work in the sector, of whom only 26 percent are Saudi, according to official figures.

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Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 reform agenda aims to create one million new jobs in tourism and increase the share of Saudis holding them to 70 percent.

Tourism Pioneers, launched in June, has a budget of $100 million, with programs for 52 specific jobs, from entry level to management.

“We need to develop the knowledge, skills and competencies for Saudis at the highest levels,” said Mohammed Bushnag, deputy tourism minister for human capital development.

Al-Waleed al-Zaidi, who works as a sales manager in Riyadh for a foreign hotel chain, visited Switzerland for a week-long course and got a taste of serving leisure travelers, a completely different challenge from business. clientele he is used to.

Instead of questions about dry cleaning services and international calling rates, they pressed him for recommendations on attractions and the best way to use public transportation.

The experience “opened up my understanding of the different needs of tourists in terms of activities, food and places they would like to visit,” he said.

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For Bushnag, this type of education will ensure that the Saudis can provide high-level service.

“We are very interested in the quality and global exposure of the Saudis” who, until now, have seen little of how other countries’ tourism industries operate, he said.

“We need to close this gap.”

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