30 MILLION TOURISTS BY 2030

Saudi Arabia 2019-2020 | ENTERTAINMENT, CULTURE & SPORTS | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Bill Ernest, CEO of Saudi Entertainment Ventures (SEVEN), on the entertainment market, education, and expectations for the year ahead.

SEVEN was incepted as the latest PIF venture into the entertainment sphere, focused on the establishment of entertainment centers around the Kingdom. Could you tell us more about the mandate of SEVEN, and what we may expect in the coming years?


SEVEN has the mission to develop, invest in and operate a number of family-friendly entertainment destinations and attractions in Saudi Arabia. We are the leading arm of the Kingdom's plan to invest USD64 billion to build an entertainment ecosystem right here in Saudi Arabia. It has been widely quoted that Saudi Arabia will attract nearly 30 million visitors a year by 2030, a figure we are working steadily towards. Our aim is to bring visitors to Saudi Arabia, of course, but also provide meaningful entertainment—and gainful employment—options for the people of the Kingdom. Our vision is to become the leading national investor, developer and operator of a diverse entertainment ecosystem in Saudi Arabia. We are working to support and develop the entertainment sector, build capacity and strengthen local talent by establishing a myriad of thoughtful and creative recreational projects across the country. Our vision is four-fold: launching movie theaters, recreational complexes, amusement parks and family entertainment centers. In the coming years, you can expect to witness a sea-change in Saudi Arabia's entertainment sector. We will see a large influx of new visitors, keen to enjoy ground-breaking world-class leisure facilities and entertainment options like the world has never seen before.

Saudi Arabia is relatively unknown as a tourist destination – aside from religious visitors for pilgrimage purposes. How does the SEVEN fit into the master plan to attract more foreign visitors into the Kingdom? 


Our mandate is closely aligned with Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030, and we are the investment arm of the Public Investment Fund (PIF), the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund. SEVEN, as the driving force in the Kingdom's new entertainment era, is charged with implementing the vision, which includes creating a destination worthy of attracting international visitors. Attracting more tourists—and tourist dollars—to the Kingdom centers around developing a world-class entertainment ecosystem. We are lucky in many ways to start with greenfield sites, and no legacy issues. We are also fortunate to have the blessing and backing of the Saudi government and authorities in building the infrastructure. In line with Saudi culture and tradition, our focus from the outset has been on family-friendly entertainment. From providing the very latest high-tech entertainment such as VR and AI-based gaming and events, to exploring the best of the country's natural wonders, Saudi Arabia presents an untapped mine of exciting new tourism opportunities, in a world where people are always craving something new. The Ministry of Culture has stated goals of facilitating greater foreign tourism to the Kingdom, which will of course assist us in our goal.

In recent years, the public ecosystem around culture, entertainment, sports and heritage has been expanded. What synergies do you strive for with the other entities? 


SEVEN is part of the national drive towards a new economy, less dependent on fossil fuel revenues, so we are obviously working very closely with all the relevant government entities and stakeholders. A very visible commitment from the highest echelons of society underlines the importance of the move towards a more diversified economy. Under the auspices of PIF and the government's overarching Vision 2030, we are all working very closely on every aspect of building a new entertainment ecosystem. We are excited to see projects like NEOM, Qiddiya, and the Red Sea Project begin, and we will share knowledge and experiences as we all work together for a bright new future. The creation of this sector involves global business deals, new visa rules, infrastructure, technology, architecture and design, all paying heed to local culture and heritage.

What are the opportunities for the private sector—in hospitality, entertainment, F&B, leisure, construction—to get involved in SEVEN projects?

As mentioned above, the entertainment ecosystem encompasses so many different aspects. Opportunities for the private sector are many and varied. We are a Saudi Arabian company working for the wider, long-term benefit of the nation, and so looking to engage with the best companies across the Kingdom. From customer-facing staff to experts in every field, we need partners, joint ventures, contractors and stakeholders who are proud, committed and energized to join us in our journey of creating a whole new industry. While we are searching for partners globally, our quest begins on our own doorstep, with an urgent need for world-class local private sector entities to become involved in helping achieve the exciting goals underlined by the Vision 2030 blueprint. The sector's biggest challenge is ensuring we find, encourage and train the Kingdom's brightest, most ambitious people in a whole new set of skills suitable for this sector. SEVEN aims to link up with existing education and vocational training providers across the Kingdom to provide appropriate new courses and training for the new career paths we are opening up. We expect to attract people of all ages and skill levels, but youth are clearly key in ensuring the future success of the sector. We will make training, secondment and on-site learning a key part of the SEVEN success story. We expect Saudi Arabia's educational establishments to offer more courses at undergraduate and graduate level in fields such as design, art, computing, hospitality, leisure, sports science, catering, marketing, advertising, and PR. This is a project firmly for Saudis, and it needs to be managed, run and overseen by Saudis from the outset. Simply put, the offsets will be clear, strong economic growth as the Kingdom moves away from reliance on its traditional revenue sources of energy. With a vast uptick in the number of visitors, every aspect of society will benefit – from direct tourism services to indirect advantages of government utilizing increased tourism revenues on social welfare, for example.

What are your primary ambitions for the year ahead?

Our plan is ambitious, rapid, and breathtaking. It's unlike anything ever seen anywhere else in the world. When we launched in 2017, it was announced that our owners, the Public Investment Fund, expect the company's projects to serve more than 50 million visitors, provide more than 22,000 direct jobs and contribute to the GDP by approximately SAR8 billion by 2030. On launch in 2017, it is on record that we had initial capital of SAR10bn (USD2.7bn) to invest in nationwide projects. The 2019-2020 financial year will see the rapid rollout of more family-friendly cinemas across the Kingdom. We plan to open several movie theaters this year alone. Our plans are ambitious, but teaming up with AMC Group—the largest movie theater company in the world— makes it simpler to emulate their world-leading experience across the Kingdom. We have scheduled up to 50 movie theaters, that's 450 screens, to be open by 2022. Our schedule is to open up to 20 entertainment destinations before 2030. We have already made announcements regarding our plans for the Riyadh entertainment complex and revealed plans for the Eastern Province. Dammam, Alkhobar, and Al-Ahsa will see a theme park on a 100-hectare site in Al-Aziziyah, along with six cinemas and three new entertainment destinations.