Building a Sustainable Tourism Sector: Insights from Industry Leaders in Saudi Arabia. In a series of interviews with Tiana Amann, Head of ESG, Kerten Hospitality, Richard Williamson, COO, Considerate Group and Simon Wright, Founder & Chairman, TGP International, ESG Mena discusses potential and opportunities for sustainable tourism in Saudi Arabia.
Following is the interview:
Why is sustainable tourism a necessity for the sector and national economy? Risks and opportunities.
Tiana Amann: It allows the country to re-direct its focuses from oil and to diversify the economy in a sustainable direction; not just diversify the economy but the livelihoods of people living there. There is a re-direction of jobs, income etc. as there will be more options for the locals in terms of career opportunities for both men and women, locally and internationally living within Saudi. Sustainable tourism also allows for the local hand makers, home makers to grow themselves financially and business wise. A huge opportunity is that if tourism is focused locally – there is a lot of demand that will be needed from the hospitality businesses for products and supplies that can/should be coming from the local businesses/entrepreneurs within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
As the country diversifies itself and opens the door for tourism, there is the biggest risk of mass tourism happening in such a beautiful, culturally rich destination. We have seen in many instances globally – what mass tourism can do to a country, the people living in the surroundings of tourism/hospitality products, and the possible degradation/exploitation of natural resources. The approach to tourism should be very carefully decided – there lies a great opportunity for tourism to be used in a way to further spread awareness on sustainability, and the cultural and natural resources that heavily lie throughout Saudi Arabia that should be continued to be protected/preserved. – Tourism needs to be controlled sustainably, not allowed to grow an in return tourism is now controlling the country and there are no rules, limitations to touristic developments/behaviors. For example following trends like eco-tourism where the sole purpose is really to preserve and protect the natural/cultural resources in KSA. Instilling laws/regulations which prohibits anything such as mass tourism, inhibiting degradation of nature to facilitate hospitality growth & developments. The demand for sustainable travels, eco-tourism, nature based tourism, even wellness & adventure based experiences is rapidly growing and there is a huge opportunity for Saudi Arabia to take advantage of this and curate the destination as a sustainable tourism ‘product’
Richard Williamson: Guided by Vision 2030, as part of its drive to diversify away from oil and gas and generate jobs for the younger and future generations, Saudi Arabia is looking to attract ever increasing numbers of visitors and tourists to the country over the next decade – over 100m visits by 2030.
Of course, if you want to attract high-end international tourists, you need to adhere to high-end international standards. However, fortuitously, Saudi Arabia is in a unique place to build sustainability into its hospitality sector. With the scale of its development ambitions, be that NEOM, Red Sea or AlUla, the country can embed sustainability into this new build offering far more easily than countries with a larger established hospitality base. The country is in a competitively advantageous position when it comes to sustainability.
Sustainability is here to stay – be that stewardship of nature for future generations, ensuring that the Red Sea coast remains pristine to sustain tourism for the long-term, to conserve water and other scarce resources, to minimise waste in fragile ecosystems and to serve the community, preserving culture and heritage (eg Boutique Group’s Palace conversions), generating jobs, sustaining communities.
If this can all done in an honest and transparent way, to the highest possible standards, it will benefit all stakeholders and establish a sustainable tourism sector for the benefit of generations to come. Rightly, sustainability is one of the core pillars of Vision 2030.
Simon Wright: Everyone now understands the urgent and growing need to build all industries sustainably. However, at TGP, being operators as well as creators and advisors, we also understand the barriers that prevent businesses from adopting ‘sustainable’ practices; these barriers range from cost and education to inaccessibility. The risk of sustainable tourism in its current form is that it is only adopted at the higher end of the market, leaving most of the industry unable to participate in the collective effort required.
This is why TGP focuses on the human aspects of the UN SDG’s for our Sustainable Hospitality initiative – using hospitality as a vehicle to create life changing opportunities through financial independence. Our role is to facilitate education, funding and drive operational excellence to create financially sustainable hospitality businesses. The ultimate opportunity for Sustainable Hospitality is that with more financially sustainable businesses in the industry, there will be more resources to innovate solutions to sustainable challenges currently unresolved or understood.
How can we raise awareness of sustainable tourism in Saudi Arabia and the region?
Tiana Amann: We need to make sustainability approachable and understandable for all. Everyone needs to understand the importance of sustainability and how it relates locally to Saudi Arabia and themselves. They also need to understand how they can further drive it – the actions that are needed, the goals we are trying to achieve and how their businesses, movements, and specific actions again that will reach those goals. The biggest question that will be asked is – how is this relevant to me? We need to make sustainability approachable and RELEVANT to the culture and climate in the Kingdom.
Richard Williamson: The region should make sustainability the norm, demonstrating that sustainability isn’t a compromise but an exciting future of discovery, place, culture and communities.
Saudi Arabia needs to do sustainable tourism with openness, bravery and integrity. Ensuring sustainability statements match reality and avoid greenwashing and the associated reputational risk. Being open and honest about your company or your hotel’s progress and backing it up with evidence demonstrates that you understand the challenges of sustainability and are committed as a firm to doing better.
Sustainable tourism success stories need to be celebrated through the press, social media and on websites – being vocal, like Red Sea Global, helps set expectations and builds consensus. Making strategies and objectives accessible to all is important for normalising sustainability, ensuring that targets and objectives can be found easily on hotel websites for example, and employees know where to find ESG policies.
Simon Wright: By ensuring it is economically viable for individuals across the market from businesses to consumers to engage with. Fundamental to this is broadening peoples understanding of the term sustainable tourism which covers environmental as well as human factors such as inequality, quality education, decent work and sustainable cities & communities.
Policies and regulations: applying the world’s best practices in modern Saudi Arabia. What’s the role of public, private, people, partnerships, in this regard?
Richard Williamson: 8% of the world’s emissions derive from the tourism industry. With this scale of challenge, a collective approach is required, with the public sector, private companies, employees, communities and customers all engaged. When each sees the benefits of engagement, real change can follow. Given that Scope 3 emissions (indirect emissions from an organisation’s supply chain) can often account for up to 70% of an organisation’s carbon footprint, collaboration and partnerships across the supply chain will become increasingly relevant.
Fundamentally, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the blueprint that underpins the world’s approach to sustainable development. These 17 goals need to be embedded into sustainability strategies to ensure that Saudi Arabia as a nation, businesses, public entities, and individuals are aligned to the same goal: a shared ambition for sustainable growth and prosperity for people and planet.
In the Kingdom, Vision 2030 and the Saudi Green Initiative are the guiding principles for sustainable development.
Beyond the SDGs, there are many other frameworks, alliances, and coalitions that tourism businesses can be a part of to share best practice, innovate, and ask questions. These include the UN Global Compact which provides a reporting framework of Ten Principles based around human rights, labour, environment, and anti-corruption. The Sustainable Hospitality Alliance (SHA) is a global network of industry leaders working to drive collaborative action across the sector. The SHA’s Pathway to Net Positive Hospitality is a framework to enable businesses to work side-by-side in achieving positive change.
Formal, audited certifications are a more formal way of demonstrating commitment to ESG. For example, B-Corporation is a well-established and comprehensive certification that enables good governance and sustainable practice within an organisation. Other certifications include Green Key and EarthCheck, although these might benefit from being tailored more closely to the challenges of the Middle East.
Finally, guest engagement is key to instilling behavioural change across our communities. We as industry leaders can demonstrate best practice and encourage guests to take sustainable behaviour back home with them.
Simon Wright: Significant – as identified by the UN SDG’s the aim is to inspire and inform greater private sector action to drive inclusive and sustainable prosperity. The public sector has the vision and funding available to change behaviour however the private sector has the experience and network to execute the ideas.
From our interaction with the Kingdom our view is that it is a leading global example of this approach to development and employing some of the most interesting approaches to public private sector partnerships; examples include the Tourism Development Fund and Cultural Development Fund.
Sustainable Tourism education in Saudi Arabia and the region? Present and future.
Tiana Amann: Sustainable tourism education should be integrated within courses, schooling, universities on every level. Sustainability should also not be limited to tourism when it comes to education. We need to prepare the younger generation for the ‘new’ world or new way of life that is coming. We need to adequately prepare them from a very young age to understand sustainability and understand how it comes to play in literally everything that we do – both in our personal and working lives. Sustainability should definitely be integrated within tourism studies, but also integrated wholeheartedly for everyone. The only way for true sustainability (which is for the long run) we need to empower the local people to understand what it is and to get them excited and willing to drive it!
An important factor which should be the basis to ‘sustainable education’ is understanding the destination. At Kerten Hospitality we have taken this approach beforehand with a Destination Profile Research Project we collaborate with universities & students. The aim of this is to get the theoretical background in understanding for example, the current position and future goals of sustainability in Saudi Arabia. In order to effectively tackle sustainability, in ensuring it is relevant to the needs of the destinations & locals – we must first understand entirely the country. What are the natural resources we can use to build? What local products or hand makers can we integrate within our product and services? How can we empower the local people to build our team on ground? What are the regulations advancing or even prohibiting sometimes sustainable developments? Even something as small as – what waste sorting facilities is currently present in the country, OR which local private organization can we maybe partner with to further advance our sustainability agendas?
Richard Williamson: Saudi Arabia has a challenge with the scale of tourism and hospitality job creation required to support the scope of the giga-projects. Saudi Arabia’s National Tourism Strategy and Vision 2030 target the creation of one million new jobs in tourism by 2030.
However, the drive for sustainable tourism in the Middle East is already well underway, marked by the opening of the UNWTO’s regional office in Riyadh in 2021. The launch of Saudi Arabia’s International Academy for Hospitality and Tourism is intended to ensure that national education systems keep up with the employment demand in hotels and restaurants. We have also seen commitments to education in sustainable tourism through the Global Tourism and Rural Development programme.
These initiatives, when supported by both public and private sectors, will form the backbone of the training and education needed. But the sheer scale of Saudi Arabia’s ambitions means that the challenge will be ongoing and long-term, with online training supplementing traditional courses. Courses will inevitably need to be delivered in English as well as Arabic.
Simon Wright: Our understanding on the present Sustainable Tourism education is that it is driven through regulation, requiring businesses to achieve certain criteria to receive authority approvals, which is the case in most countries. This interaction creates limited engagement from the industry and limits the education on the need for the adoption of new working practices to specialists. Our vision for the future is through initiative such as Sustainable Hospitality is that creates engagement on the need from operator level up and educates on how employing sustainable working practices is enabler of growth rather than an inhibitor.
Green investments in Sustainable tourism. is Saudi Arabia ready to embrace that?
Tiana Amann: Yes, definitely ready to embrace; however it is up to everyone to pool together resources and knowledge to make that happen! The buying power is there, influence is also there, however we need to all decide together what are we embracing and investing in. It must be relevant to Saudi and should be aimed at including and investing in the local public & businesses to drive our green agendas, to provide the innovative ideas and businesses needed on ground to fully push sustainability. Green investments will go a long way if it is invested locally – the locals need to be empowered with sustainability – to understand and embrace it.
Richard Williamson: The market for green bonds and other sources of green financing is expanding. Green investment includes project financing for green buildings (particularly in energy efficiency), water management, waste management, energy-efficiency transition, biodiversity and cultural heritage.
So far, the Kingdom’s tourism has been largely funded by the Public Investment Fund (PIF). However, there is a need to identify co-investment and new sources of finance. Green finance will be part of this spectrum of funding.
In Saudi Arabia, today, green financing remains at an early-stage, but the public sector can promote access to green finance to close the investment gap through grants and green loans with specific environmental criteria, as well as risk-sharing mechanisms to foster private sector participation in the financing of sustainable tourism development. The Tourism Development Fund (TDF) is expected to be the principal channel for green funding and the catalyst for investment in the Kingdom’s tourism sector in line with long-term sustainability.
Simon Wright: Saudi Arabia has shown the world how to embrace and enact change, there is no reason why it could not demonstrate the same ambitious leadership with green investments. The Kingdom’s approach to development and growth initiatives have been on a significantly longer trajectory to many comparable projects globally, which is closely aligned with the ideation of green investing and so arguably already embracing it.