The Transformations Of Saudi Arabia's Hotel Market
Business Traveller Middle East|March 2020
As Saudi Arabia opens its doors to travellers from across the globe, the hotel industry is responding with enthusiasm, introducing new properties and hospitality concepts that will put the country on the world business and leisure tourism map
Gemma Greenwood

In September 2019, Saudi Arabia made history by issuing tourist visas online or on arrival to citizens of 49 countries for the first time. Within the first month,

77,000 e-visas were issued, with the figure rising to 350,000 for the final quarter of 2019, the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage’s (SCTH) Chairman, Ahmed Al Khatib, revealed at January’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The bold initiative pushed up Saudi Arabia’s visitor number total to 15.5 million in 2019, a figure anticipated to grow by 7 per cent between 2020 and 2024 to around 21.3 million, according to Colliers International data.

The new liberal visa rules are just one facet of the wide-ranging Vision 2030 initiative – Saudi Arabia’s blueprint for rapid socio-economic transformation – with tourism earmarked as a primary growth sector.

Government targets include attracting 100 million visitors a year by 2030, growing tourism’s contribution to GDP to 10 per cent by that date (from the current 2 per cent).

With Saudi Arabia now easier to visit than ever before, local and international hotel operators have responded with vigour, announcing their accelerated growth plans.

At the recent Saudi Arabia Hospitality Investment Conference (SHIC) in Riyadh ( January 2020), global names including Accor, Hilton, InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), Marriott International, Millennium Hotels & Resorts MEA, Hilton Hotels and Rotana unveiled their ambitious expansion strategies for the kingdom.

There are currently more than 38,912 rooms under construction in Saudi Arabia, equating to 38.3 per cent of existing supply, according to figures by industry analytics specialist STR, and this figure will continue to rise at pace if plans announced at SHIC come to fruition.

But it’s not just the volume of new hotel rooms coming online that is exciting the industry, as well as current and potential travellers to the kingdom. It is the scope for innovative concepts too, from luxury tented camps and eco resorts to spiritual hospitality offerings in the Holy Cities and lifestyle properties that reflect modern and cosmopolitan Saudi Arabia.

Christopher Lund, Head of Hotels at Colliers International Middle East and North Africa, points out that both domestic and international traveller demographics are shifting rapidly, driving a need for hotel solutions that meet their changing behaviours and demands.

“The Saudi demographic is largely made up of millennials and Gen Z who account for approximately 69 per cent of the total population,” he notes. “New hotel projects should be aimed at the young profile of domestic guests who demand experiences.

“We [therefore] expect to see more contemporary luxury and lifestyle hotels entering the market over the next few years. Their focus should be experiences rather than the material.”

Lund identifies the need for hospitality projects that “encourage social interactions”, including coworking spaces and community hubs, as well as dining experiences that include locally inspired menus to provide guests with an insight into the Saudi Arabian cuisine and culture.

“We might also see more ‘affordable luxury’ lifestyle brands such as Moxy, Citizen M and Motto, as well as more EWAA (Eco-tourism, Wellness, Adventure and Agritourism) developments in rural and scenic areas,” he suggests, highlighting AlUla, Abha and Al Ahsa as prime destinations for such developments due to their unique landscapes and favourable climates.

Luxury hotel group Aman Resorts has already recognised this opportunity and is set to open three eco-conscious hotels in AlUla, home to cultural heritage sites including Mada’in Salih, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site.

They include a luxury tented camp that is “at one with nature” and a ranch-style desert resort in an “otherworldly setting”.

“We expect to see more hotels in this space as the push for sustainable hospitality continues to take shape in the kingdom,” adds Lund.

LEADING BRANDS MOVE IN

AlUla is also a development focal point for Accor, which is currently the leading hospitality provider in Saudi Arabia where it operates 36 properties and has another 45 planned.

Having been selected by the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU) as the exclusive hospitality partner for the Winter at Tantora festival in AlUla, operating the Ashar Camp with 27 tented rooms, five villas and 54 RV (Recreational Vehicle) camps at the cultural event, it will also be the first international operator to takeover and manage Shaden Resort AlUla under its MGallery brand. This luxury tent-style resort will offer a range of eco-tourism, adventure, wellness and cultural activities.

Accor’s CEO for the Middle East and Africa, Mark Willis, says the group aims to “spearhead new lifestyle experiences that showcase and preserve the very best of Saudi Arabia” and so similar projects are in negotiation for properties to be managed under Mantis, the luxury eco-focused brand in which the group has a 50 per cent stake.

As a leading conservation-led hospitality company renowned for its tented accommodation concepts and commitment to preserving the communities, wildlife and the environment, Mantis is a good fit in a country committed to the sustainable development of its tourism industry.

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