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Saudi Arabia Has The Potential To Become The Switzerland Of The Middle East (And Here's Why That Matters For The Kingdom) The recent geo-political and geo-economic leadership exhibited by Saudi Arabia in the MENA region has the potential to do more to promote tourism in the Kingdom than any expensive marketing campaign designed to attract visitors.

By Aradhana Khowala

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The seventh edition of the Future Investment Initiative (FII) just concluded, which saw over 6,000 delegates from around the world convene in Riyadh to attend plenary sessions, taskforce forums, and collaborative workshops. The breadth of issues discussed speaks of the multifarious and interwoven nature of today's challenges– from geopolitics to climate change, inflation to high interest rates, and rising inequality to ethics and peace.

Now, the interlinkage between tourism and the national image of a country is a thoroughly established notion. This is why any successful tourism strategy requires a strong national image, as it is what positions a country in the hearts and minds of unrelated billions who form an impression based on what you convey, but also what they believe you stand for in the world. As much as a lot of the national image is shaped by history or current events, and, more recently, media interest and opinion, a national image is changeable. And nearly always, it is better when it happens inadvertently without any grandiose plans or any marketing manipulation to improve the country's overall standing in the world, just as it goes about its business of building shared prosperity for its people.

Countries, especially those new to the world of tourism, often piggyback on their tourism brand to do the heavy lifting of projecting a positive image to attract international visitors. However, often, a tourism brand is too narrow or limited, and the better strategy is having a country's national image prop up its tourism offering, and project an identity without actually spelling it out. It is ultimate leverage and soft power that can sway opinions, and influence how people view your country.

Switzerland is a great example of a country that delivers its story where it counts. Known for its scenic landscapes sprinkled with sparkling lakes, charming historic towns, medieval alleys, and picturesque squares, visitors from all over the world travel to this relatively small country in the middle of Europe to experience its famous ski resorts, hiking trails, and natural beauty. And, with its powerful and positive image, Switzerland finds it pretty easy to attract tourists.

For a small country with a population of 8 million, it welcomed nearly 12 million tourists at its peak and billions in tourism revenues. It is 37th in international tourism arrivals, 18th in international tourism receipts, and it contributes to 8.7% employment. But it's not just for tourists– the image and perception are directly corelated to everything Switzerland produces, from luxury watches to chocolates, as well as some of the most precision engineered medicines and industrial equipment. Its image also plays a critical role in attracting foreign investment, talent, students and researchers, events, consumers for its products and services, and the attention and respect of other governments, international organizations, and the media. All this adds up to yet more visitors and economic prosperity for Switzerland.

Related: Opening Up To The World: Saudi Arabia's Tourism Goals

The global public perception of Saudi Arabia has improved leaps and bounds, spurred by the rapid economic growth, significant social liberalization, and sweeping changes in Saudi society. Vision 2030 is well on its way to develop the country's non-oil economy, create job opportunities for youth through developing multiple sectors including tourism, and local pride in the giga projects is palpable. But a top-notch tourism offering is not enough to ensure visitation. Alongside the excitement and self-confidence in the country's internal trajectory, a highly successful tourism offering needs even more positive feelings influencing media content.

Over the past months, significant geopolitical shifts have happened in the region, and Saudi Arabia is increasingly taking on more responsibility and playing a key role in the region, be it orchestrating strategic dialogue with Israel, conducting de-escalatory talks with Iran, subsidizing active tensions with Turkey, launching peace initiatives in Yemen, holding bilateral talks with Qatar, displaying signs of normalization with Syria, and playing moderator on initiatives to help solve conflict in Europe. From a geopolitical angle, the Kingdom is becoming a bridge between the East and West- a region that has independent and balanced foreign policy with its allies in both hemispheres. Just like Switzerland in Europe: not aligned with any one bloc or warring party, and facilitating trade and dialogue with all. The region remains fundamental to the global pursuit of economic, energy, and climate goals, and this geopolitical leverage will only increase, given its new vision for the region based on diplomacy and economic statecraft.

Neutrality has been a cornerstone principle of Swiss foreign policy. Despite wars, proxy wars, and multiple crises in Europe, it has been a symbol of peace and stability in the region, whilst ensuring the quintessential Swiss independence and the inviolability of its territory. Although it has redefined the word, its understanding and implementation many times over in the last decades, it is deeply engrained in Switzerland's collective psyche, enjoys wide popular support, has secured internal cohesion and often pitched as an advantage for Switzerland. A similar political play will not only enable Saudi Arabia to overcome its political and sectarian differences with its neighbors, but also achieve its 100 million annual visitors target by 2030. Because, after all, people want to visit countries that are actively impacting humanity positively.

Every country has an image whether it wants or likes it or not. And that image is what the audience perceives it to be. Saudi Arabia is emerging as a global stateman and a leader in the Middle East. And tourism to the Kingdom will be a key beneficiary of this new leadership role. Being "good", "strong," and "decisive" should not be kept a secret; Saudi Arabia needs to reflect and spread further this message, because among other things, it will collectively help attract more visitors to the country.

Related: Bringing The World To Saudi: A New Entrepreneur Middle East Report Looks Into Saudi Arabia's US$1 Trillion Investment In The Tourism Industry

Aradhana Khowala

Founder and CEO, Aptamind Partners

Aradhana Khowala is the founder and CEO of Aptamind Partners, a United Kingdom-based private client advisory firm that helps ambitious leaders in governments, emerging destinations, public and private sector firms and increasingly social-sector organizations understand the impact of tourism as a change agent. She is also a Board Member of Elaf Group (SEDCO Holding) and the World Tourism Forum in Lucerne, Switzerland, as well as the Chair of the Group Advisory Board for Red Sea Global in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 
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