Laid out bold visions for Indian market with targets to welcome 100 million visitors: Alhasan Aldabbagh, ET TravelWorld


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In line with Saudi’s Vision 2030 and to welcome more than 2 million Indian visitors this year, the Saudi Tourism Authority (STA) has strengthened its commitments to driving awareness about tourism and hospitality in its region. With an aim to maintain strong visibility in India, Saudi has stayed active and busy in Indian market with a line-up of partnerships, trade engagements, roadshows, and participation in prominent trade events from start of this year.

The strategy follows Saudi Tourism Authority’s (STA) ongoing efforts to increase awareness about Saudi as a unique, diverse, authentic tourism destination and ultimately, drive visits, as one of the key priority source markets for the country.

As part of the delegation visit to India since start of 2023, the tourism authority featured a range of meetings, industry roundtables and networking events including participation at the OTM in Mumbai and SATTE in Delhi. This was followed up with two roadshows in Mumbai and Ahmedabad. Later, the Saudi Tourism Authority (STA) also forged a partnership with world’s most popular Twenty20 cricket league, Indian Premier League (IPL) as their official sponsors.

Talking about the plans, targets and commitments for the Indian market, Alhasan Aldabbagh, President – APAC, Saudi Tourism Authority in conversation with ETTravelWorld said informed that Saudi welcomed over 1 million visitors from India in 2022 and aims to double its visitation numbers in 2023.

Commitment for the Indian market
“We are really committed to the Indian market for a simple reason that India will be our number one source market in achieving our vision in 2030. So, we have laid out a very bold vision, where we are targeting 100 million visitors. By 2030, our share of visitors from India is going to be over 12 million, which is a significant amount of visitors coming from one market. So that’s why we have to really back this vision by creating a strong relationship with the travel trade and also by investing in marketing, raising awareness and other initiatives. So, we are greatly committed to the Indian tourism market,” revealed Aldabbagh during the interaction. Saudi Tourism Authority leveraged its partnership with the IPL to launch bespoke promotional packages with leading Indian travel agencies like Akbar Travels, SOTC, MakeMyTrip, Cleartrip, and EaseMyTrip with an aim to promote Saudi as the leading leisure destination for Indian travellers.

Marketing & promotions
Talking about the tourism authority’s marketing and promotion plans, Aldabbagh said for a new destination like Saudi, it’s always better to start promotions with the travel trade because he believes that a lot of the volume is going to be coming through trade partners.

“For maybe an established destination, people can look to promote directly but still people don’t know much about the service. So, we’re really putting a lot of effort on building packages directly with our trade partners, and knowing what the different segments are, who are their customers weather its groups, families and friends or individual travellers. There are also people who are seeking culture and heritage or the ones who are seeking adventure. MICE and business travel is a big segment as well.”

He added that to build elaborate and innovate itineraries, Saudi Tourism Authority is working with different partners in India, who can cater to each type of travellers.

Group travel is now picking up, customised tours growing in all segments: Madhavan Menon

“G20 is just one other government event, and going forward as India emerges as an economic power that it is today positioning itself as, you’re going to see more travel to India. I think that is going to be significant. India is going to be in the limelight and it is going to attract more tourists to India,” Menon said.

“I feel, we have a very diversified offering that can cater to all segments of travellers.We are also going to do marketing activations, where we will launch promotional campaigns that are conversion based. We’re going to do tie ups with major platforms here in India as well,” he added.

On promotions, he said STA is working heavily already with top travel influencers and travel bloggers in India while hosting Fam trips for them and media. “We’re really active on all fronts and not keeping any stone unturned basically to promote Saudi Arabia in the Indian market.”

Increasing length of stay
The average length of stay by an Indian visitor in Saudi varies according to their stay and Aldabbagh feels that STA is encouraging travellers to stay longer, explore the destination and make use of its unique programs and offerings.

“Last year, we received 1 million visitors from India out of which a large number came for Umrah and VFR followed by business and leisure. Actually, India has the highest strength of all the source markets for Saudi globally. This is mainly driven due to the VFR traffic, so the average length of stay by the visitors in Saudi is around 3 to 4 days. Obviously, the group travellers stay longer. But, looking at the leisure packages we are selling, we are encouraging travellers to stay in and around Saudi for six to seven days. With the new stopover visa program, we are selling packages between two to four days,” he said.

In early 2023, Saudi launched the 96-hour stopover visa with a one-night complimentary hotel stay when travellers fly with Saudia. The stopover visa is open to all leisure, business and religious travellers travelling on Saudia and flynas.

Saudi has also announced the opening of multiple VFS Tasheer Visa offices by the end of May. These offices will serve as the authorised visa partners for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, providing applicants with efficient and secure administrative visa services.

MICE from India
Emphasising on importance of MICE business from India, Aldabbagh said it is an important sector in they are working on our MICE strategy. “We are working with our trade partners to understand different types of business travellers that are coming in. We are also working to identify on what we can classify as ‘business plus’ or ‘Bleisure’ travellers, who come to do business in Saudi and then we can offer them some itineraries and packages which allow them to discover Saudi. That is like incentivising business travellers,” he mentioned.

Demand and capacity to Saudi from India
In 2022, the air seat capacity with connectivity between India and Saudi Arabia was 50,000 seats per week. In start of 2023, it rose to 72, 000 seats per week. But Aldabbagh feels this is not enough looking at the volume of visitors they are looking at from India.

“We want to grow this number. Currently, Saudi Arabia is connected to India via eight airlines. We are working on number of things to boost the connectivity which includes increasing the number of direct flights as well as indirect or stop over flights. We are also looking forward to increase in number of slots at the airport for each carrier. We are also working on the possibility of enhancing the bilateral agreement between India and Saudi Arabia to increase point to point connectivity between both the countries,” he informed.

Explainer: How the TCS rule on outbound travel is a lose-lose situation for both travel agents & government?

Also, till date government has not clarified that in case of Overseas Tour Packages, whether TCS shall only be applicable to the packages wherein remittances under LRS are involved. In case of Nepal and Bhutan, you don’t need to do any remittance as in both the countries, Indian rupees is a legal tender as such the payment to these countries is being done to their respective bank accounts in India through normal NEFT/RTGS from Indian banks.

Recently, IndiGo Airlines announced a new airline route from Ahmedabad to Jeddah, with daily direct flights starting August 11, 2023, which should further boost tourism from India.

Focusing more on sustainability
Sustainability is part of STA’s core strategy in all departments. According to Aldabbagh, Saudi has to build sustainability a part of its development plan for all the new projects and also remain competitive at the global stage.

“It has already been implemented at the recent projects at Red Sea, AIUla, Neom and others. Also, adopting to sustainable measures is not just about the construction and using renewable energy, it’s also about protecting wildlife and providing jobs to the local community. With all our new projects, we are hiring locals and creating job opportunities for them,” he concluded.

  • Published On May 25, 2023 at 09:19 PM IST

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