Saudi Arabia has been heavily promoting domestic tourism this summer, encouraging residents to explore the country by traveling through its 28 airports.
However, citizens and residents took to social media to express concerns over the inflated hotel and flight prices over the Eid al Adha period, claiming that without regulation of hotel room rates, they will continue to choose international tourism over staycations.
Yet with the current circumstances and increased demand for local getaways, industry experts suggest the hike in prices was expected.
“While I understand the point of view of those who tend to compare the prices of hotels in Saudi Arabia with international destinations, I believe the current prices are reasonable considering the extra cost of flight tickets and other related expenses when traveling abroad,” Faisal Al Ghamdi, founder of local travel agency TipTop and pre-opening manager for Sukoon, a boutique hotel in Jeddah, told Salaam Gateway.
Ghamdi, who has worked in Saudi Arabia’s hospitality sector for more than 20 years, added that with the suspension of international flights and the expected increase in local tourism, there was bound to be a shortage of accommodation units over the Eid holidays.
Saudi authorities suspended international flights on March 15 and domestic flights on March 21 as part of preventative measures to curb the COVID-19 outbreak. The country resumed domestic flights from May 31, but it is still reviewing its international travel policies.
“The pandemic has had a major impact on travel, particularly flying, but it is still possible to travel safely and enjoy the kingdom this summer provided customers behave sensibly and respect the guidance given by the Ministry of Health and the General Authority of Civil Aviation,” Sudeep Ghai, chief customer and commercial officer at Flyadeal, a Jeddah-based low-cost airline and a sister company of Saudia Airlines, told Salaam Gateway.
While the resumption of domestic flights has helped stimulate many economic sectors, the airline industry faces an uphill struggle to return to normal operations.
Flyadeal, the kingdom’s third-largest carrier, started with a reduced schedule of 20 daily flights in May that was recently ramped up to 56 flights, compared to 98 daily flights in January 2020.
“We are flying less with seat capacity blocked and the domestic hajj flying is a fraction of normal levels. These are unusual times so while there are family visits and staycations, we’re also finding a need to remain flexible and respond as demand takes shape, since it does not follow historic patterns of behaviour,” said Ghai.
Flight prices are also higher now, driven by structural changes within the economy, such as the Airport Building Charges (ABC) tax implemented this year, which added an extra 20 riyals ($5.30) per person per flight and the tripling of the value-added tax rate to 15% in July.
Over the Eid holidays, “unusual supply pressures” and “capacity restrictions” led to the blocking of middle seats on board planes. “[L]ess seats being made available means more demand for the same seats and this will push the prices up,” said Ghai.
HOTELS WITH NEW PROTOCOLS
For the Kingdom’s hospitality sector, the emphasis has been on enhanced hygiene protocols and greater flexibility in bookings.
“Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the government of Saudi Arabia, through the Saudi Center for Disease Prevention and Control, created a prevention plan for all sectors in the kingdom,” Amjad Irshaidat, general manager of Shaza Makkah Hotel, told Salaam Gateway.
He said there is a “clear action plan and recommendations from the government” for the hospitality sector with regards serving guests.
According to Irshaidat, the Ministry of Tourism and Ministry of Health conduct regular inspections of hotels to ensure they meet the highest health, safety, and cleanliness standards.
“People are interested in staying in hotels that are applying the highest safety and hygiene measures,” he said.
Earlier in July, Shaza Hotels, which has three properties in Saudi Arabia, rolled out a hygiene protocol known as Shaza Assures, detailing health and safety standards for the wellbeing of guests and staff.
InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), which has 33 hotels in Saudi Arabia across six brands including Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn, also launched a hygiene regime, Clean Promise, to reassure guests their rooms meet industry-leading levels of cleanliness.
With the new hygiene programme in place, the hotel group went to market with several promotions to inspire residents to escape their homes as restrictions eased.
The getaways offer provides a discount of 35 to 50% and the staycation offer includes a half-board package among other benefits. Both promotions offer flexible booking options and no deposit is required.
“Since the easing of restrictions, we have seen a good uptake in the domestic leisure business across our brands and hotels in Saudi Arabia,” Paul Dunphy, area general manager for KSA East at IHG and general manager of InterContinental Al Khobar told Salaam Gateway.
IMPACT OF DOWNSIZED HAJJ
For hotels in Madinah, a religious tourism destination, the situation is different, with demand drastically lower than previous Eid periods due to the downsized hajj. Shaza Al Madinah, for example, was fully booked during Eid Al Adha in 2019, but this year, occupancy levels are down by half.
“There are hundreds of hotels in Makkah and Madinah, but this year, the demand is low because there are no international travellers – only residents. We depend more on international guests. Also, not many hotels are open because of the drop in demand,” explained Irshaidat.
The decision to limit hajj to around 1,000 residents this year and to close the Grand Mosque for worshippers on Arafat day and Eid Al Adha meant that most hotels in Makkah and Madinah were empty.
“Usually, the Eid period is significant for Saudi residents who want to visit Madinah because they like to come and perform the Eid prayers at Al Masjid an Nabawi (The Prophet’s Mosque), which is very important in our religion,” Irshaidat said.
The tourism landscape is expected to gradually improve as Saudi Arabia reopens to visitors as the government’s financial stimulus package starts to revive businesses affected by COVID-19.
“With initiatives announced by the government in the last few years, the tourism sector in Saudi Arabia has progressed significantly,” said Dunphy.
“This has translated into improved tourism infrastructure, which I believe is ready to support the increasing domestic demand in light of the current situation, as well as international demand when the time is right.”
(Reporting by Heba Hashem; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim firstname.lastname@example.org)
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