Restrictions in tourism, entertainment ‘not a barrier’ in attracting tourists to Saudi, says IHG boss

Tourism and entertainment restrictions in Saudi Arabia are “not a barrier” for hospitality giant InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), according to the company’s managing director in India, Middle East and Africa.

Speaking to Arabian Business, Pascal Gauvin said the kingdom will not face challenges in attracting tourists beyond the scope of pilgrims visiting the kingdom for religious reasons such as hajj and umrah.

“I don’t know what exceptions the [Saudi government] will put in place, but is that a barrier? It’s not a barrier for us,” he said, referring to the kingdom’s $500 billion NEOM project, which is being built on the Red Sea coast and is expected to welcome “all the living standards, all the living styles and community,” according to CEO Nadhmi Al-Nasr.

The project was unveiled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017 as the kingdom looks to diversify its economy away from oil and grow its tourism sector.

In March this year, CEO of Accor hotel group Sébastien Bazin told Arabian Business that tourists visiting Saudi Arabia will want to be able ‘to drink and enjoy music,’ adding that the kingdom will need to make certain exceptions for tourists in order to attract visitors to the country.

Tourists in Saudi 'want to be able to drink' says AccorHotels CEO

AccorHotels CEO Sebastien Bazin suggested the kingdom can learn from Dubai’s experience

“A destination means people want to live [there]. They want to have fun. They want to be able to enjoy music. They may want to be able to drink. Maybe the [Saudi] government in place will allow it only in certain destinations…NEOM is one of the examples of what they will be exempting from many local rules,” the CEO said.

Bazin suggested the kingdom could learn “lessons” from regional tourist hubs such as Dubai.

“That has to be in place, otherwise you won’t be attracting tourists. Dubai made it happen, so there are a lot of lessons to be taken from the Middle East,” he said.

But Gauvin said IHG does not “foresee any issue” in Saudi’s ability to attract international tourists.

“We don’t see any challenges [for tourism in Saudi] honestly. The destinations are beautiful, the vision is amazing, Neom is a city of the future and we are really very excited about it. When you see the red sea, it’s just unbelievable. The sights are unique and very preserved,” he said.

“I think [the Saudis] have their own strategy and they can do things very differently and still be as attractive as Dubai or Abu Dhabi,” he added.

IHG is currently in talks to open hotels in the Red Sea project, with 12 hotels already set to open in the kingdom over the next 1-2 years. The group was one of the first hoteliers to open in Saudi in 1975 and currently has 33 hotels in the country.

In 2017, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman launched the Red Sea project stretching across 30,000 km of islands and beaches, over 30,000 hotel rooms, an airport, marinas and recreation centres. Aimed at attracting tourists, it is expected to increase the kingdom’s GDP to $5.86 billion upon completion, whereby the first phase is expected to be finished by 2022.

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