Over the last two decades, the UAE has managed to become a global hub for travel and tourism, emerging as a top international tourist destination. The country, with its key cities of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and multiple large-scale events — such the recent Dubai Expo 2020 — attracts a wide range of leisure and business visitors, offering guests a multifaceted experience, from sandy beaches to desert resorts.
When looking at tourism in the UAE as a whole, figures confirm that Dubai is the leading destination, with approximately 16.74 million international travelers visiting the Emirate in the pre-Covid year of 2019. The city accounts for around 76 percent of all international visitors entering the UAE, with approximately 22 million international visitors having traveled to the UAE in 2019. In 2021, and one year after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Dubai registered around 7.28 million international visitors globally, making it one of the most visited destinations that year.
Furthermore, the UAE did a tremendous job in managing the Covid-19 crisis. According to the Pandemic Resilience Index, the UAE was the second most resilient country globally for its response to the pandemic. In recognition of the Emirate’s successful citywide management of the pandemic, Dubai was awarded the Safe Travels stamp in July 2020. This serves to consolidate the Emirate’s position as one of the world’s safest destinations.
Saudi Arabia has also embarked on a highly ambitious path to develop its tourism and hospitality industries. Major destination development projects are underway around Saudi Arabia’s west coast, such as the Red Sea Project, AlUla and the tourism projects under Neom. In addition, KSA has plans to attract 100 million local and international visitors annually to the kingdom by 2030.Furthermore, the UAE did a tremendous job in managing the Covid-19 crisis. According to the Pandemic Resilience Index, the UAE was the second most resilient country globally for its response to the pandemic. In recognition of the Emirate’s successful citywide management of the pandemic, Dubai was awarded the Safe Travels stamp in July 2020. This serves to consolidate the Emirate’s position as one of the world’s safest destinations. Saudi Arabia has also embarked on a highly ambitious path to develop its tourism and hospitality industries. Major destination development projects are underway around Saudi Arabia’s west coast, such as the Red Sea Project, AlUla and the tourism projects under Neom. In addition, KSA has plans to attract 100 million local and international visitors annually to the kingdom by 2030.
Sector requirements to fill the talent gap
Historically, and until very recently, large hospitality operators were primarily seeking to source talent from far-flung corners of the world, such as East Asia, CIS or Europe, resulting in lengthy recruitment processes and adding an additional layer of complexity with extensive onboarding programs.
In recent years, education groups both in the UAE and KSA have realized the untapped potential and benefits of setting up local hospitality and tourism education assets in the form of vocational hospitality schools or even dedicated under- and postgraduate programs in universities. In Saudi Arabia, the tourism and hospitality sectors have been identified as a key source of employment opportunities for its younger population. In fact, local “Saudization” efforts, such as determining the quota of employed nationals in the hospitality sector, have driven the establishment of vocational schools and tourism and hospitality universities.
The education landscape
The UAE and KSA have witnessed rapid growth in higher education over the last 10 to 15 years. This is evidenced by the addition of international campuses, as well as newly established public and private institutions across both countries. In the UAE, higher education offerings in Dubai alone consist of more than 60 institutions. At the national level, around 296,000 local and international students are enrolled in various academic programs. More than 40 international branch campuses operate across the UAE, with approximately 70 percent of the country’s branch campuses in Dubai. Indeed, the Emirate appears to have contributed significantly to changes in the country’s higher education sector. When it comes to KSA, approximately 1.9 million students are enrolled in the country’s universities. With the UAE and KSA recognized as two of the fastest-emerging commercial and trading hubs in the GCC, business education remains a preferred field of study among students. For instance, in the UAE, around 45 percent of students pursue business, economics and engineering degrees, with both demand and competition very high.
Putting the existing higher education landscape into perspective, the number of tourism and hospitality graduates joining the regional job market is insufficient to effectively fill demand requirements for quality talent in hospitality in the UAE and KSA. Although hospitality-specific, higher education entities, such as the The Dubai College of Tourism, and further vocational entities have been established in the UAE and KSA, a misalignment remains between demand for qualified talent and the actual supply of specialized graduates joining the job market every year. A senior professional working at a large hotel chain in Dubai claimed that the opening of more than 100 new hotels in the Emirate has made it challenging to keep up with workforce hiring and training development.
The need for more UAE- and KSA-based tourism and hospitality institutions is clear; without them, homegrown talent cannot flourish. This is evident in KSA where, according to latest statistics, only around 5,000 students are enrolled in tourism and hospitality programs. In that regard, the tourism and hospitality sectors have taken major steps to remedy the shortages, by providing additional incentives and in-house training opportunities. A senior hotel manager working at a leading global operator claimed that the scarcity of skilled talent and difficulty in finding employees simply adds another layer of complexity to operating and expanding a hotel business effectively in the GCC.
The opportunity In the short term, in-house training to develop and onboard talent may temporarily limit the workforce shortage. However, with further tourism and hospitality infrastructure, such as hotels, theme parks and destination heritage developments nearing completion in KSA, there is a crucial need for further permanent tourism and hospitality education institutions, such as hospitality universities or vocational training institutes, to provide a sustainable output of highly qualified tourism and hospitality professionals. Additionally, mandatory adherence to localization rules and the KSA government’s selection of tourism and hospitality as a major sector of employment for young Saudi nationals joining the job market are further aspects that call for investment in tourism and hospitality education in KSA.
Similar dynamics apply in the UAE. While having established a base of existing tourism and hospitality institutes in the UAE, the country’s growing tourism and hospitality infrastructure requires a higher number of educational centers to meet demand. This business opportunity to invest in local education for tourism and hospitality is one that key players should certainly consider.
Principal at Roland Berger Middle East
About the author
Richard Stolz focuses on the tourism and travel sectors, and is an experienced strategy consulting professional who is passionate about developing and helping organizations grow and expand across the value chain in tourism and travel.