Bridging the tourism gap

Saudi Arabia hosted the biggest and most impactful World Tourism Day in its 43-year history, addressing skills shortage
in the tourism industry, while encouraging travellers to explore less familiar places

“The Riyadh School of Tourism and Hospitality is Saudi’s gift to the world,” said His Excellency Ahmed Al Khateeb, Minister of Tourism of Saudi Arabia

UNWTO World Tourism Day (WTD) 2023 was concluded in the Saudi capital of Riyadh as the biggest, and the most impactful, World Tourism Day in the 43-year history of the event. Saudi Arabia took the opportunity to showcase its new tourism and hospitality school and bevy of green investments on the world stage.

More than 50 ministers and 500 government officials, industry leaders and experts from across 120 countries came together for WTD 2023.

The celebrations also saw the unveiling of UNWTO’s first-of-its-kind, data-driven, global tourism initiative – Tourism Opens Minds – which aims to encourage travel to less-familiar tourism destinations as a means for bridging cultures and fostering mutual understanding.

To mark the launch, delegates gathered in Riyadh were presented with a special pledge calling on them to actively work to promote new and under-appreciated destinations.



Details were also revealed about the Riyadh School of Tourism and Hospitality, which will empower the next generation of tourism leaders from around the world.

As of Dec 2022, 80,000 Saudi citizens have been trained to work in the tourism sector, and the country has committed to investing over $100 million in education and training.

Addressing the global skills shortage in the tourism sector, the new school is co-founded by the Ministry of Tourism of Saudi Arabia and Qiddiya in collaboration with the UNWTO.

The student-centric school will have a student intake of more than 25,000 per year by 2030 and offer a convenient hybrid curriculum combining vocational and academic education.

It will be located at the Kingdom’s entertainment megaproject headquarters, Qiddiya, with an interim facility at Princess Nourah University, accepting students from Q4 2024.

The new developments were announced during a press conference hosted by the Minister of Tourism of Saudi Arabia, His Excellency Ahmed Al-Khateeb, and the UNWTO Secretary General, Zurab Pololikashvil on the sidelines of WTD.

“The Riyadh School of Tourism and Hospitality is Saudi’s gift to the world,” said His Excellency Ahmed Al Khateeb, Minister of Tourism of Saudi Arabia. “Through its pioneering curriculum, that will offer comprehensive higher education courses covering all aspects of the tourism and hospitality industry, the school represents Saudi’s commitment to providing comprehensive, progressive education that empowers individuals, both domestically and internationally. As we invest in the next generation of tourism professionals, we are not only securing the industry’s future but also fostering a legacy of excellence that will drive prosperity, stimulate individual growth of citizens and foster cultural exchange for years to come.”

Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a transformative journey under Vision 2030, aiming to open its doors to the world and diversify its economy. Tourism plays a central role in this transformation, with the country becoming the world’s fastest-growing destination, welcoming 93 million visitors last year, surpassing all expectations and setting a global pace.

According to the recent UNWTO Barometer Report, the Middle East reported the best results in January-July 2023, with arrivals 20 per cent above pre-pandemic levels. The region continues to be the only to exceed 2019 levels so far, with Saudi witnessing extraordinary double-digit growth at (+58 per cent).



Despite the large numbers (or maybe because of them) accessibility is at the heart of Saudi Arabia’s tourism agenda, ensuring no one gets left behind, right from its forward-thinking visa initiatives inviting more countries to travel visa free to its green investments that ensure the needs of people of varying disabilities are met through infrastructure and training.

“We have a keen focus on accessibility and have been working on this for the past few years,” Zurab Pololikashvili, Secretary-General of the UNWTO, tells TTN. “This November, the 2nd European Conference on Accessible Tourism: Tourism for All will take place in San Marino from November 16 to 17, 2023.

“Accessibility is still a problem in many countries. Some of the world’s largest airports were built years ago and there wasn’t much though put into people with disabilities and special needs – a little bit of investment should be enough to bring these destinations up to speed. 

Accessibility on a larger scale is also about visas, explains Pololikashvili, “We’ve working last 20 years to support our member states to facilitate visa regime, and sometimes it’s not as easy process due to various complexities that vary from country to country. This is why events and conferences like these are important to help with dialogue.

“I always try to make these conferences and events more useful, not just for panels, but to transform these panels into concrete decisions and meaningful outcomes,” Pololikashvili tells us.



On the sidelines of WTD, UNWTO also unveiled its new brand identity, UN Tourism, which reflects where the organization is today and where it is going tomorrow.

The UNWTO also announced the winners of its Women in Tech Startup Competition Middle East, held in partnership with Almosafer, in recognition of the women leading the sector’s transformation across the region.

Finally, a Memorandum of Understanding between the Ministry of Tourism of Saudi Arabia and the World Travel & Tourism Council (WTTC) to unite private and public sectors in a concerted effort to craft a sustainable blueprint for growth.