Eyeing tourism boom, Saudi Arabia scrambles to train hotel staff
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Under the watchful eye of an instructor, Munira al-Rubaian spreads fresh bed linen in a mock hotel room in the Saudi capital, aiming to land a job in the desert kingdom's growing tourism sector.
The unemployed 25-year-old is one of thousands of Saudis enrolled in the state-run "Tourism Pioneers" programme, which aims to prepare 100,000 job-seekers for a field that government officials insist is set to take off.
At two facilities in Riyadh, Rubaian and other trainees study tasks like welcoming hotel guests, plating food in upscale restaurants and keeping luxury suites squeaky-clean.
Others are sent abroad for short courses in countries with far more advanced tourism industries, including the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and France.
This army of newly minted bellboys, cleaners and higher-paid hospitality managers is expected to help Saudi Arabia -- a famously conservative and closed-off Gulf kingdom that only opened its doors to tourism three years ago -- make a positive impression on first-time visitors.
The scheme also supports the government's goal of employing more Saudis in roles traditionally occupied by migrant labourers.
The niqab-wearing Rubaian signed up for Tourism Pioneers after her own efforts to find a job at a hotel went nowhere.
She is optimistic the experience will help her get a foot in the door.
"I've had the opportunity to learn and improve my capabilities for employment," she told AFP.
"I will now have the experience and self-confidence to deal with people."
- Aiming high -
In 2019, two years after Prince Mohammed became first in line to the throne, the country introduced tourist visas, but the coronavirus pandemic dashed hopes of an immediate influx.
Authorities nonetheless remain committed to their eyebrow-raising goal of drawing 30 million foreign guests annually by 2030, up from just four million last year.
That's on top of 70 million targeted domestic trips each year by Saudis and foreign residents.
Of the combined 100 million a year hoped-for tourists, officials project some 30 million will be making religious pilgrimages, largely to Mecca and Medina, Islam's two holiest sites, in western Saudi Arabia.
The rest, officials hope, will be partially powered by new attractions like Al-Ula, a budding arts hub set amongst ancient Nabatean tombs, and the Red Sea Project, a Maldives-style resort destination.
But while the kingdom has in recent years relaxed rules barring cinemas, mixed-gender concerts and sports events, other regulations including an alcohol ban remain in place, potentially denting its appeal.
In a bid to lure 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 could apply for electronic tourism visas.
That right has already been granted to 49 countries, mainly in Europe and North America.
- Overseas exposure -
To make their dreams a reality, Saudi leaders recognise the need to dramatically increase the number of people working in tourism.
Some 850,000 currently work in the sector, only 26 percent of them Saudis, according to official figures.
Prince Mohammed's Vision 2030 reform agenda aims to create one million new tourism jobs and boost the portion of Saudis filling them to 70 percent.
Tourism Pioneers, launched in June, has a budget of $100 million, with programmes for 52 specific jobs from entry-level to management.
"We need to build the knowledge, the skills, the competencies for Saudis at the highest levels," said Mohammed Bushnag, deputy tourism minister for human capital development.
Al-Waleed al-Zaidi, who works as a sales manager in Riyadh for a foreign hotel chain, visited Switzerland for a week-long course and got a taste of what it's like to serve leisure travellers -- an altogether different challenge from the business clientele he's accustomed to.
Instead of questions about dry-cleaning services and international call rates, he was being pressed for recommendations on attractions and how best to use public transportation.
The experience "opened my understanding of the different needs of tourists in terms of activities, food and places they would like to visit", he said.
For Bushnag, this kind of education will ensure Saudis can provide a high level of service.
"We are extremely keen about quality and global exposure for Saudis" who, until now, have seen little of how other countries' tourism industries operate, he said.
"We need to bridge this gap."