As Saudi Arabia opens up to tourism, will OFWs bring their families to visit?

Kristine Joy Patag - Philstar.com
As Saudi Arabia opens up to tourism, will OFWs bring their families to visit?
View from Riyadh's Kingdom Centre-Sky Bridge.
Philstar.com / Kristine Joy Patag

RIYADH, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — Brand specialist Achilles Catbagan, a 44-year-old Filipino who has been working abroad for 13 years, has just brought his wife on a 35-day vacation to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has recently opened its borders to tourism.

As the kingdom gears up to open to more foreigners, Catbagan tells Philstar.com they look forward to bringing their two kids in Santa Rosa, Laguna to Riyadh to visit.

"We are okay with bringing our kids. Here, you just have to follow their laws and you will be okay. Of course, if you commit some mischief, you will be jailed," he said in Filipino at a chance interview at the King Abdulaziz International Airport last week.

World Travel and Tourism Council president Julia Simpson noted during the first day of the Global Summit 2022 held at the King Abdul Aziz International Conference Centre in Riyadh, that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been traditionally closed for centuries.

But, in the past three years, Saudi Arabia has "opened up its arms and doors to the world," she added.

Last week, Saudi Arabia saw more than 2,800 delegates to the summit, including hundreds of tourism ministers and delegations from across the globe. Delegates to the summit included former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

In its "Saudi Arabia Vision 2030, A Story of Transformation" book, tourism authorities said that Saudi Arabia launched an online tourist visa program for citizens of 49 countries in 2019.

"The scheme, the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia, marked a critical evolution towards becoming one of the largest and most dynamic economies," it added.

Riyadh, the venue for the WTTC Global Summit in 2022, is now on an "ambitious and unparalleled" journey to become one of the top five tourist destinations in the world and to welcome 100 million visitors as the kingdom injects $800 billion into its tourism industry.

Pricey for migrant Pinoys

Riyadh Boulevard, where Catbagan hopes to bring his kids, has themed attractions like giant slides, merry go-rounds, water fountains, go karts and even a zip line. Visitors, who will pay 55 SAR (roughly P750), prior entrance will be greeted by towering LED billboards reminiscent of Times Square in New York City.

Another attraction that tourists may visit is Kingdom Centre’s Sky Bridge, which will bring them to the 99th floor of the building and provide an unobscured view of Riyadh. Entrance to the Sky Bridge is 63 SAR (roughly P850).

But for Maria Teresa Labus, a 51-year-old teacher's assistant in Riyadh, her savings from 17 years working in the kingdom and her current earnings may not be enough to bring her family to Saudi Arabia for a tour.

"We have plans, but we are just simple people... If we can afford it, why not?" she told Philstar.com in Filipino at a chance interview.

Overseas Filipino Worker deployment to Saudi Arabia resumed in November after months of negotiations that led to new agreements on migrant worker protection. 

The Philippines banned deployment to Saudi Arabia last year in response to the abuse and maltreatment that five OFWs suffered at the hands of their Saudi employer. The government also said it would not lift the ban until issues over P4.5 billion in unpaid back wages of around 10,000 OFWs were settled.

According to a Manila Times report, there were 189,826 newly-hired OFWs sent to Saudi Arabia in 2019. Of that number, 37,278 were hired as domestic workers and cleaners and another 152, 548 were deployed in jobs like construction. 

For Marie*, who has been working in the kingdom as a waitress for barely a month, the high cost of living and the need for safety measures means she has no plans of inviting relatives to visit any time soon. 

So far, getting around Riyadh is through metered cabs and ride-hailing applications, which makes sightseeing potentially expensive. Public buses, Philstar.com was told, have routes to the provinces outside the city.

More jobs for Filipinos?

Saudi Tourism Minister Ahmed Al Khateeb said that tourism is expected to open up 126 million new jobs in the next decade. This means, "one in every three new jobs created will be in the tourism sector, which is a lot of lives we can change if we do this right."

Saudi Arabia expects tourism to create one million new jobs by 2030 and comprise 10% of its GDP.

Al Khateeb said Saudi Arabia is blessed with a young population, with 2/3 under the age of 35. "We are counting on and encouraging them to become the tourism leaders of tomorrow," he said.

Kiran Jay Haslam, Diriiyah Gate Development Authority chief marketing officer, told Philippine media that their project in the outskirts of Riyadh is expected to open 55,000 new jobs, but that they operate on a local Saudi national first mantra.

He said they have seen how young talents have joined the tourism sector, including locals of Diriyah — the town is home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Their heritage and personal experience growing up in the town lend a flavor in their stories as they welcome tourists to their home.

Haslam said that of their workforce, 85% are Saudi and of these, 36% are female, of these 16% high post or senior manager. Of the entire workforce, 40% are from Diriyah.

But will opportunities be available for Filipinos too?

Haslam said: "Yes, of course, they will be. It’s not alienating or anything like that."

"It’s always going to be inclusive and it’s not just jobs for people of Diriyah, for the people of Saudi Arabia: It’s jobs," he added.

Tourism Secretary Christine Garcia Frasco, speaking at the Travel is a Solution for Enhanced Livelihoods panel at the summit, noted that Filipino hospitality is "distinct around the world" and is "felt wherever you may go."

"We are in the accommodation and services sector...in many sectors of the tourism industry. We have demonstrated this even here in Saudi Arabia, where there are over 800,000 Filipino workers," she added.

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Editor's note: The trip to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was hosted by World Travel and Tourism Council. At no stage does the host organization has a say on the stories generated from the coverage, interviews conducted, publication date and story treatment. Content is produced solely by Philstar.com following editorial guidelines.

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