Off the Beaten Path: Tourism for Expats

26 Aug

Camel During the first weekend that I stayed in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia while living as an expatriate consultant, I quickly realized that there was a significant untapped business opportunity to provide tourist services to expatriates in unusual locations.  Riyadh, and Saudi Arabia broadly, are not your typical destinations for tourists (in fact, there are no tourist visas), but there are, large numbers of expatriates who live within the country.  And there is very, very little to do.

Many of us benefit from expense accounts which compensate for having been pulled from our lives in places in London, Amsterdam, and Toronto to move to the desert in August.  Those accounts afford us the opportunity to explore the region every few weekends, but aren’t necessarily large enough to fly us home regularly, or even necessarily get us outside of the country (flights to most “destination” cities like Beirut or Cairo are upwards of $700 USD from Riyadh).  We can, however, afford fun, reasonably priced local activities that allow us to explore the cities and regions where we live – making the best of the opportunity while we are here.

The challenge, however, is that the tourism industry is substantially underdeveloped.  Beyond a large, good quality museum, Riyadh has little in the way of tourist attractions.  Some opportunities do exist, for instance, to take advantage of things that locals already do, such as ride ATVs in the desert, eat traditional foods, or smoke a hookah.  Others, such as visiting the local camel market, might result in the lucky coincidence of finding an enterprising rancher who will let you ride his camel.  By and large, however, it is a substantial undertaking the string together even a few interesting activities.  Some of us are young, adventurous, and enterprising enough to do it, but there are surely thousands who are not.

All it would take is formalizing a few key relationships with locals (e.g. the guy with a small fleet of ATVs, a camel rancher or two), creating some marketing materials, hiring a couple English-speaking guides/drivers, and you would be well on your way to having a lucrative local tour business.  The biggest challenge (and not a small one to overcome) would be finding someone who could manage and grow the business on the ground.

Taking it a Step Further:

Okay.  So, you could make a little money selling tourist packages to a few expats in Riyadh.  You could make a few bucks doing lots of things you say.  I think there is, however, a broader opportunity here.

The Middle East is not a typical tourist destination, but with business booming on the wave of high oil prices, the region is awash in money.  That money is bringing in a lot of skilled, highly paid workers who are eager to do something on the weekend, and are curious to see the world.

Expand Throughout the Region: I believe that this same opportunity is present in many countries in the region.  Bahrain, another country I have visited recently, had a number of activities which were available, but were poorly marketed and difficult to arrange.  What other cities might this work in?

  • Doha
  • Jeddah
  • Abu Dhabi
  • Others…?

Invest In Developing Your “Suppliers”: Because many tourist activities do not exist in these cities, you could become a co-investor in the development of several related businesses that would appeal to both locals and tourists.  These might be:

  • Go-karting
  • Up-scale local dining
  • Water sports (e.g. wave runners, parasailing)
  • Adventure travel (e.g. spelunking, climbing)
  • Cultural education (e.g. cultural etiquette courses)

As more people begin to venture into the Middle East (and the boom in Dubai alone is enough to ensure that will happen), the opportunity will only grow.

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