Personalized tourism: Saudi Tourism Authority reinvents travel has been saved
Cover image by: Jim Slatton
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As Saudi Arabia implements a strategy to diversify its economy, developing its tourism sector is a top priority. In 2019, the kingdom opened up its rich variety of historic, architectural, and natural landmarks to leisure travelers for the first time in its history. That year, Saudi Arabia welcomed 17.5 million international tourists—2.2 million more than in the previous year1—and travel and tourism accounted for 9.7% of Saudi Arabia’s GDP.2
The leisure tourism program was just hitting its stride when the pandemic struck in March 2020, says Choon Yang Quek, chief technology officer at the Saudi Tourism Authority (STA), whose mandate is to promote domestic and international travel and tourism in collaboration with the private sector. “The pandemic pressed the pause button on global travel and tourism,” Quek explains. “This gave us the space to think about how we could dramatically transform tourism for tourists, travel businesses, and other commercial partners.”
The STA adopted a traveler-centric approach to technology planning and implementation and is developing a digital infrastructure that will provide the foundational technology capabilities for a seamless, digital, visitor-centered travel experience. The traveler’s experience is strategic to the STA’s mission and is expected to be a key differentiator that will help the kingdom distinguish itself from other tourist destinations as it becomes a competitor for global tourism spending.
For instance, Quek’s team is piloting an artificial intelligence–based digital-identity solution that tourists can use as a guide for their travels. Visitors who opt to share information about their interests and preferences will proactively and in real time receive customized, location-based recommendations on activities, restaurants, hotels, or other businesses through their mobile devices. Privacy is a priority; visitors will be able to opt out and control the amount of data they provide.
The application’s recommendation algorithms can predict interests and experiences based on users’ previous choices, tastes, location, and preferences. For example, a tourist who likes to play golf and try traditional Saudi dishes might receive recommendations for these activities while a tourist with children might receive suggestions for family-oriented activities and child-friendly restaurants. “Most tourists use mobile devices to look at maps and reviews to find attractions or a place to stay or eat,” Quek explains. “We’re providing a single, authoritative source that not only eliminates the process of searching multiple apps or websites, but also improves the experience by automatically personalizing it.”
A project pilot received high customer satisfaction scores, exceeding the targets set for several key metrics. And STA is currently working to proliferate the tool across its extensive tourism ecosystem so that its commercial partners can proactively showcase their offerings and events. For example, Quek’s team has recently launched a centralized tourism content repository that helps destination-marketing companies and other ecosystem partners easily find and use photos, videos, and other digital assets that can help them market their experiences. “Our key objective is to develop digital technology solutions that are transformative not only for travelers, but also for our commercial tourism partners,” says Quek. “We can help them extend their marketing budgets by making digital assets easier for tourists to find.”
And since the STA is starting with a clean slate, there’s plenty of room for growth and innovation in this area. “We don’t have to rebuild infrastructure or processes because our travel and tourism industry is in its early stages,” Quek says. “We have a unique opportunity to develop greenfield technology projects that have the potential to reinvent the travel experience for both tourists and travel-related businesses.”
UN World Tourism Organization, “Country profile—inbound tourism: Tourism dashboard,” accessed November 9, 2022.View in Article
World Travel and Tourism Council, “Economic impact reports,” accessed November 9, 2022.View in Article
Cover image by: Jim Slatton