under Under the watchful eye of an instructor, Munira Al-Rubaian spreads fresh bed linen in a simulated hotel room in the Saudi capital, aiming to find a job in the desert kingdom’s growing tourism sector. The unemployed are among thousands of Saudis enrolled in the state-run “tourist pioneer” programme. The program aims to prepare her 100,000 job seekers in fields that government officials claim will take off.

At two facilities in Riyadh, Lebaian and other trainees learn to greet hotel guests, plate food in fine dining restaurants, and keep luxury suites squeaky clean. Some are sent on short courses in countries with far more developed tourism industries, such as the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and France.

This newly created army of bellhops, cleaners and highly paid hospitality managers will help make Saudi Arabia, a conservative and closed Gulf Kingdom that only opened its doors to tourism three years ago, a favorite with first-time visitors. It’s expected to help make an impression. The scheme also supports the government’s goal of hiring more Saudis in roles traditionally occupied by migrant workers.

The niqab-wearing Rubaian signed up with the Tourism Pioneers after her efforts to find a job at a hotel were unsuccessful. She’s optimistic that the experience will help her get her foot in the door. She told AFP that she had “a chance to learn and improve my skills to get a job”. “I now have experience and confidence in dealing with people.”

Students attend a training seminar at the Ministry of Tourism Training Center in Riyadh.

aim high

Saudi Arabia’s 37-year-old de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is counting on a tourism boom to diversify the world’s largest oil exporter’s economy. In 2019, two years after Crown Prince Mohammed became first in line to the throne, the country introduced tourist visas, but hopes of an immediate influx were dashed by the coronavirus pandemic. Nonetheless, officials remain committed to the frowning goal of attracting 30 million foreign guests annually by 2030, up from just 4 million last year.

It covers 70 million domestic trips annually by Saudis and expats. A total of 100 million tourists are expected annually, but officials expect about 30 million to make religious pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina, two holy sites of Islam, mostly in western Saudi Arabia. ing.

The rest will be partially enhanced by new attractions such as AlUla, a budding arts hub surrounded by ancient Nabatean tombs, and the Red Sea Project, a Maldivian-style resort, officials hope. . However, while the kingdom has eased regulations banning movie theaters, mixed-gender concerts, and sporting events in recent years, other regulations, including a ban on alcohol, remain in place, which could undermine its appeal.

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 will be able to apply for electronic tourist visas. That right has already been granted to 49 countries, mostly in Europe and North America.

overseas exposure

Saudi leaders recognize that they need to dramatically increase the number of people working in tourism to make their dreams come true. About 850,000 people are currently working in the sector, of which only 26% are Saudis, according to official statistics. Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 reform agenda aims to create 1 million new tourism jobs and raise the share of Saudis to 70%, he said. Launched in June, the Tourism Pioneers have a $100 million budget and programs for 52 specific jobs, from entry-level to managerial positions.

Students attend a training seminar at the Ministry of Tourism Training Center in Riyadh.

Deputy Minister for Tourism, Human Capital Development Mohamed Bouchnag said: Al-Waleed Al-Zaidi, who works as a sales manager for his chain of foreign hotels in Riyadh, visited Switzerland for a week-long course to experience what it is like to serve leisure travelers. Did. he’s used to it

They weren’t asking about dry cleaning services or international call rates, but about recommended attractions and best ways to use public transportation. The experience “gained a better understanding of the different needs of tourists, such as activities, food and places they want to visit,” he said.

For Bushnag, this kind of education ensures that Saudis are able to provide a high level of service. “We are very keen on the quality and global exposure of Saudis who have so far seen very little of how the tourism industry in other countries operates,” he said. “We need to fill this gap.”—AFP

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