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Saudi Arabia 2020 | ENTERTAINMENT, CULTURE & SPORTS | INTERVIEW

Saudi Arabia is using its sovereign wealth fund to jumpstart its entertainment sector, building movie theaters and theme parks across the Kingdom. SEVEN is taking charge of this ambitious plan.

BIOGRAPHY
Bill Ernest was appointed CEO of SEVEN in October 2018, tasked with overseeing its venture into family entertainment. In 2008, he was appointed president and managing director of Asia operations for Walt Disney Parks & Resorts, following other executive roles within the company where he had worked since 1994. Before joining Walt Disney, Ernest helped open more than 40 hotels for Marriot Corporation. He received bachelor's and master's degrees in hospitality management and recreational management from Southern Illinois University.

SEVEN was started as the Kingdom's latest Public Investment Fund (PIF), focused on the establishment of entertainment centers. Could you tell us more about SEVEN's mission and what we can 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. It has been widely quoted that Saudi Arabia will attract nearly 30 million visitors a year by 2030. Our aim is to bring visitors to Saudi Arabia, of course, but also provide meaningful entertainment and gainful employment options. Our vision is to become the leading national investor, developer, and operator of a diverse entertainment ecosystem. 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: to launch 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

Saudi Arabia is relatively unknown as a tourist destination. How does SEVEN fit into the master plan to attract more foreign visitors?

Our mandate is closely aligned with Vision 2030, and we are the investment arm of 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—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 latest high-tech entertainment such as virtual reality and AI-based gaming and events, to exploring the best of natural wonders, Saudi Arabia presents an untapped mine of exciting new tourism opportunities.

What are your primary ambitions for the year ahead?

Our plan is ambitious, rapid, and breathtaking. It is unlike anything ever seen anywhere else in the world. When we launched in 2017, it was announced that our owners at the PIF expect the company's projects to serve more than 50 million visitors, provide more than 22,000 direct jobs, and contribute approximately SAR8 billion (USD2.1 billion) to GDP by 2030. At launch in 2017, it is on record that we had initial capital of SAR10 billion (USD2.7 billion) 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 theatre company in the world—makes it simpler to emulate their world-leading experience across the Kingdom. We have scheduled up to 50 movie theaters, which comprise a total of 450 screens, to 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, Al-Khobar, and Al-Ahsa will see a theme park on a 100-ha site at Al-Aziziyah, along with six cinemas and three new entertainment destinations.