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Can Lionel Messi’s left foot fire Saudi into the tourism big league?

Lionel Messi waving his wand of a left foot for Argentina Reuters
Lionel Messi waving his wand of a left foot for Argentina

In the region’s latest multimillion-dollar wager on football, Riyadh is hoping the player’s global appeal will attract tourists

The Gulf states are betting big on football. Qatar’s World Cup kicks off in November and Saudi Arabia announced in early May that it had signed one of the world’s most famous players, Lionel Messi, as a tourism ambassador.

The deal with Messi is reportedly worth $20 million and will see the 34-year-old – who now plays for Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain – promoting the kingdom through social media posts and trips.

The region’s football strategy may already be paying off, according to Emily Jenkins, general manager at UAE-based travel business dnata.

“We are witnessing increasing enquiries coming through for travel options to Qatar in late 2022, as we find UAE residents enthusiastic to support the increasing number of large-scale sporting events taking place within the region,” Jenkins said.

“The UAE provides an ideal springboard for both local and international travellers looking to journey into nearby Qatar, at a short-haul flight time of just over one hour.”

Dubai’s established tourism infrastructure could make it another key beneficiary of the World Cup, when 1.5 million fans — equivalent to 50 percent of Qatar’s population —  are expected to visit.

Qatar Airways and other regional carriers have already announced match-day flights between Doha and the surrounding countries. Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker said: “The landscape of this tournament gives us the opportunity to spread the business with various regional airlines. We have always believed that a win for Qatar is a win for the region.”

It would take ‘years of advertising’ to do what Messi does

While Qatar’s foray into sports tourism delivers guests on a platter – albeit at a cost of roughly $220 billion for hosting the tournament – Saudi Arabia is pushing for aspirational sports branding.

Greg Klassen, partner at tourism consultancy Twenty31 Consulting, told AGBI that Riyadh needed someone like Messi because it was “pouring billions and billions of dollars into developing a number of different tourism regions, but currently it has almost zero awareness as a tourism destination, outside of Hajj to Mecca.

“They’ve got to use tools to accelerate this awareness, and Messi is a tool for this. It would take years of advertising to create the level of awareness that Messi would bring to the table.”

Ufuk Secgin, chief marketing officer at UK-based Muslim travel firm HalalBooking, also sees colossal potential in the Saudi tourism market, but he believes the signing of the footballer is a bold punt. “The product may not be ready yet,” he said.

“It depends who you want to attract. Obviously, Messi appeals to a very wide audience — it’s a global audience … If you want to appoint a sports ambassador he’s one of the top people you’d want as a brand ambassador. Immediately, you reach hundreds of millions of people,” Secgin added.

Messi’s appointment, he suggested, may help to modernise the kingdom’s image, as well as contributing to the Vision 2030 target of attracting 100 million visitors a year.

Klassen suggested that Messi’s unveiling earlier this month was simply designed to announce that “Saudi is in the business of tourism. It’s basically saying, ‘Pay attention to this space as we develop our tourism industry for the future.'”

Later, Klassen expects to see a strategy more “fine-tuned and focused on who specifically they’re going after.”

Secgin suggests “intrepid” international travellers are being attracted to Saudi Arabia even now. “There will be early adopters — those who are interested in going to destinations which are not frequented by the mainstream. You can see that is already happening — people are visiting AlUla, Jeddah, the Old Town,” but it’s “not yet in the millions”.

Rock carvings at AlUlaCreative Commons: Richard Mortel
Rock carvings at AlUla. Saudi’s ancient sites are already attracting international tourists. Picture: Creative Commons/Richard Mortel

A family holiday to Saudi

On his own visit to the kingdom in November 2021, Secgin got the impression that the country was not yet ready for a mass influx of tourists, he said.

Places such as the historic city of AlUla are developing, but many of the hotels and resorts there are luxury offerings — out of the price range for many who might be intrigued by an image of Jeddah on Messi’s Instagram page.

Secgin said his company had yet to see a spike in demand for visits to Saudi Arabia, despite being able to offer religious components alongside leisure activities. “We can now advertise Umrah hotels and combine the pilgrimage with a holiday and some culture, too,” said Secgin.

This is where he sees the kingdom’s true strength in terms of tourism: the pairing of uniquely Saudi religious offerings alongside the rapidly growing offering of leisure activities.

“Up until now, people always went to Saudi for their Hajj or Umrah trips. To discover that they can now go to Saudi for a family holiday at the same time is something that will take people time to get their head around. I think [Saudi Arabia] needs to speak more often about it.”

The timing of Messi’s signing, so close to the Qatar World Cup, could help with that, according to Klassen. “People will start thinking of the region, they’ll start thinking of football, then they’ll start thinking of the possibility of maybe visiting there some day.”

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