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Pressure on Saudi tourism exposes mixed feelings about AI

Visitors to the Edge of the World, a natural landmark and popular tourist destination near Riyadh. Interacting with local people is important, says the tourism minister Alamy/Afzal Khan via Reuters
Visitors to the Edge of the World, a natural landmark and popular tourist destination near Riyadh. Interacting with local people is important, says the tourism minister
  • Human interaction vital, says minister
  • Airlines embrace full digitalisation
  • Hoteliers worried about hiring

Saudi Arabia is trying to limit the use of artificial intelligence technology in its expanding tourism industry in an effort to boost job numbers, despite strides being made elsewhere in the sector to make the kingdom a leader in digitalisation. 

Speaking at an economic forum in Doha last week, tourism minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb expressed concerns about Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries losing their edge of quality in the world tourist market if they go full tilt on the faceless – if seamless – travel experience. 

“I’m focusing hard to not digitalise the whole journey. The only resource that will convert and convey your local culture is your people,” Al-Khateeb said, citing tourist interaction with a long chain of people including cab drivers and hotel workers. 

“We looked at this seriously in Saudi Arabia. We have 70 percent of the population below 30 years old.

“We’ve increased the starting point of salaries to make the sector attractive. We’ve been investing $100 million every year to train 100,000 people every year.” 

Saudi Arabia is investing huge resources in tourism as it tries to make the sector responsible for 10 percent of GDP by 2030, as part of its massive economic transformation strategy.  

The plans include an additional 320,000 hotel rooms by 2030, with more than half of them expected to be in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

A new national airline starts next year in addition to Saudia and airport expansion plans, including a new hub planned in Kuala Lumpur to bring Asian religious tourists. 

Saudi Arabia's tourism minister Ahmed Al-KhateebSPA
Saudi Arabia’s tourism minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb

The government also wants to create private sector jobs for Saudis. Unemployment among job seekers has fallen to 7.7 percent. Around 60 percent of the 32 million population is aged under 30, according to a 2022 census. 

A tourism training programme that started in 2019 had created 200,000 jobs by 2023.

And a $1 billion hospitality sector training school will open in the Qiddiya sports and entertainment city outside Riyadh in 2027 to help create another 800,000 jobs over the next decade. 

Comments by aviation industry leaders at a forum in Riyadh on May 21 highlighted the fact that digitalisation is changing the sector as many companies embrace new technologies. 

“In Saudi Arabia we started getting rid of two services – the check-in counter so you can send your baggage ahead of time, while you are in your hotel or residency; and immigration, so we have fast-track services so visitors can avoid the queuing,” said Turki Alsydlani, CCO of Tibah Airports, which runs some domestic terminals. 

Riyadh Air, the second national carrier, has also boasted that it will be a world leader in the use of face recognition to get passengers through airports in record time. 

But the government is determined that hospitality should remain an outlier. The Public Investment Fund, which owns the major tourist projects, is pressuring big hoteliers to open as many hotels as possible, partly out of a desire to create more jobs

“Talking to PIF, they would want us to be everywhere,” said Michael Koth, manager of Emirates Palace Mandarin Oriental, adding hotels were still worried about regulations on hiring Saudi nationals and the in-house training it would require. 

Hoteliers “need to find out the agenda, what’s the mandated percentage of Saudis for Saudisation that we need to bring into the properties. Imagine the population that needs to be trained,” Koth said.

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