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Saudi’s tourism ambitions rely on its youth

Rising support from young Saudis will help drive the kingdom's eco-tourism aims

Red Sea Global
The Red Sea, which will be home to the Amaala marine life institute, is one of a number of Saudi sustainable tourism projects

Last year, Saudi Arabia announced plans to use local volunteers to plant over a million trees by 2025 as part of the Green Saudi Initiative.

The initiative also foresees efforts to protect and restore marine and coastal ecosystems, and to reduce carbon emissions. 

A recent success story is Turtle Bay Hotel, located in The Red Sea Project’s Coastal Village, which is the first hotel in the kingdom to achieve a Green Key certification. The eco-friendly hotel has no single-use plastics, minimal water consumption and follows a zero-waste-to-landfill plan, setting the standard for future developments.

But elsewhere in Saudi Arabia the clock is ticking for sustainable travel and tourism.

The kingdom has set its sights high in terms of becoming a top global travel destination. It is already a dominant player in the tourism industry and ranks as the largest inbound travel market in the Middle East, driven primarily by religious tourism. 

As the global community unites to slash carbon emissions by half by 2030, Saudi Arabia has set its sights on a parallel ambition: attracting 100 million tourists to its shores by the same year. 

To diversify its offerings and attract a wider range of visitors, the Saudi government has made substantial investments in developing infrastructure, including new airports, hotels and cultural attractions.

But can the kingdom achieve this massive growth sustainably? 

Although projects like Neom have gained recognition for green credentials, some critics argue that the kingdom is merely engaging in greenwashing. In response, the government has made robust public commitments to its sustainability goals and allocated substantial budgets for implementing green initiatives.

There are lessons to be learned from other countries that have experienced significant surges in tourism in a short period of time. An influx of tourists puts pressure on a country’s natural resources, infrastructure and environment.

Countries that have experienced a rapid surge in tourism and failed to attain sustainability goals did so because they were unable to change the attitudes and culture of their citizens.

To avoid the same pitfalls, a critical component of Vision 2030 will be to instigate a shift in perception and culture of Saudis themselves. And in that respect, we are seeing major transformation of domestic attitudes towards sustainability, 

A recent survey of Saudi consumers by Euromonitor International found that 17 percent of respondents expressed interest in sustainable tourism – a significant increase from last year when only 11 percent showed interest. 

This marked shift could be attributed to the fact that the country is young – almost half of the total population is below 29 years of age.

Like their global counterparts, young people in the kingdom have a growing awareness about environmental issues and the impacts of climate change, driven in part by social media campaigns and public and private sector promotional activities.

While these figures are promising, the road ahead is long.

According to the Euromonitor International Sustainable Travel Index, Saudi Arabia falls somewhere in the middle of the global ranking, with Europe leading the way. No country in the Middle East ranks in the top 20 states.

The ranking is founded on seven factors of sustainable tourism:

  • Risk
  • Environmental sustainability
  • Social sustainability
  • Economic sustainability
  • Sustainable demand
  • Sustainable transport
  • Sustainable lodging

The kingdom stands out by attaining the top global position in the ‘risk’ category, despite achieving only moderate rankings in the remaining six pillars listed above.

Ranking first in the risk category means it faces the lowest potential challenges, threats or negative impacts that could impede its sustainability initiatives within the travel industry. It surpasses all other 99 surveyed countries in this regard, solidifying its potential for sustainable tourism success.

Such an achievement will depend not only on top-down efforts, but also hinge on the support and adoption of the kingdom’s citizens.

Keeping track of domestic perceptions will be a key indicator to determine whether the country can rise up the sustainable tourism rankings.

Mehrnoush Shafiei is a senior research analyst at Euromonitor International

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