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LONDON: Developing human capital is a key challenge for Saudi Arabia’s travel sector, the country’s tourism minister has said on Sunday.

Ahmed Al-Khateeb, speaking during a two-day meeting of the World Economic Forum in Riyadh, discussed the Kingdom’s burgeoning tourism industry, which has boomed over the past half-decade.

To address the human capital challenge, the Saudi leadership has encouraged young people across the Kingdom “to join the sector,” he said.

“We are spending a lot to train (young Saudi talents) and scale them, and involve them in the sector,” he told the “Vacationomics” panel discussion, adding that hiring local experts is essential for delivering better tourism experiences.

“You get the best experience and you know more about other people’s culture and other nations’ cultures when you deal and interact with locals,” he said. “We want to make sure that our guests are served by local people.”

Saudi Arabia has delivered “strong growth in Q1 this year, and we are moving to deliver our 2030 numbers,” the minister said.

The Kingdom’s tourism sector “has come a long way” since the launch of the National Tourism Strategy as part of efforts to diversify the economy, Al-Khateeb said, adding that the industry is “heading to achieve $80 billion this year” in private investment.

Last year, Saudi Arabia attracted about $66 billion in private investment into tourism.

“We doubled the number of visitors coming from outside — 100 million in total … 77 million domestic (and) 27 million international,” he said. “This is double the number that we achieved before we launched our National Tourism Strategy.

“We have the funding. We have a great country. We have everything that the international tourists would like to see and experience.”

Jerry Inzerillo, chief of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority, told the panel: “What the Gulf and its leadership will do in the next 10 years is going to be breathtaking to allow people to come from all over the world.”

With “so much to do in the region,” Inzerillo said he believed the “warmth and hospitality” of the Saudi people is serving as a strong selling point for tourism in the Kingdom.

Though the traditional Gulf tourism market in Saudi Arabia is well developed, European tourism is “now activating” through new business with the Kingdom, he added.

“And as we sign more and more airline deals and… (the) Ministry of Tourism has done a brilliant job in getting bilaterals, you’ll see those numbers grow very exponentially.”

Other panelists included Abdulla Bin Touq Al-Marri, UAE minister of economy; Thiago Alonso de Oliveira, CEO of JHSF Participacoes; and Aireen Omar, president and CEO of RedBeat Capital.

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