What happens now with themed entertainment in Saudi Arabia?

October 19, 2018, 2:20 PM · Remember earlier this year, when the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced plans for a Six Flags theme park near Riyadh? I have been planning my trip to the annual IAAPA Attractions Expo in Orlando next month, and I have been struck by the number of sessions that are being sponsored by Saudi Entertainment. With a multi-billion dollar investment in its General Authority for Entertainment, as part of its Saudi Vision 2030 plan to diversify the Kingdom's economy beyond oil, Saudi Arabia clearly is trying to make a big entrance into the global themed entertainment business.

But are theme park fans willing to spend money in Saudi Arabia?

Much of what Saudi Arabia is doing to develop themed entertainment within the country is designed for the benefit of its 33 million residents. The secondary market for these attractions would be families elsewhere in the Middle East who are looking for destinations that remain sharply focused on the needs of Muslim travelers, as opposed to going outside the region or visiting destinations that welcome a large number of non-Muslim visitors. (Think, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.)

Way, way, way down that list would be American or European visitors. So, ultimately, what U.S. or European theme park fans think about the KSA might not matter to Saudi Arabia's ability to sustain themed entertainment attractions.

Even if the Saudi Arabia does not necessarily need theme park fans to travel from Europe and America to make their attractions viable, it does need themed entertainment design and management professionals from abroad to help the Kingdom build its industry. This is an international business, and not even American theme parks work exclusively with domestic businesses. (Been on Bolliger & Mabillard, Mack Rides, or Intamin roller coaster lately? Yeah, I thought so.) That explains the Saudi presence at IAAPA.

Let me back up at this point and share some broader perspective. Travel isn't just entertainment. It is how people connect and discover different perspectives and cultures from around our global human community. The Internet has done wonderful (and some terrible) things in bringing individuals from around the world together, but no communications medium replaces being there IRL ("in real life"). As much as I might disagree with various governments around the world — including with some here around the United States — there is not a community in this world that I would dismiss traveling to because of its people. I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings.

That said, as a journalist with more than 20 years of experience in newspapers and journalism education, I have no desire to spend my time promoting destinations that do not share my belief in the worth and dignity of all people... or that do not protect the rights of journalists to do our work. Ultimately, themed entertainment is part of the hospitality business. You've got to be welcoming and accommodating to be part of it.

Once you get past governments, and corporations, and stereotypes, and start dealing with individual people, though, I have found abundant welcoming accommodation all over the world. But you have to be open to that. If you don't reject others, you greatly increase the chances that others will not reject you. That means having the willingness to travel to unfamiliar communities — both far away and close to home — and to do so with a humility and respect that shows others you are there to connect and not to confront.

Over time, if enough individuals start connecting with one another, it becomes harder and harder for governments, corporations, and religious leaders to exploit the divisions that happen when we stay apart. That's why travel in this world is so important. It's the first step toward building a more just society everywhere.

Given what happened to Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Turkey, though, many people around the world are questioning relationships with Saudi Arabia. That incident is not on my beat. But its effect on the development of the themed entertainment industry in Saudi Arabia is.

I will be interested in hearing at IAAPA if this outrage has changed design and management professionals' willingness to work with the KSA. Will it affect plans by Saudi Arabia to open more tourist visas to visit the country? Will it lead Saudi Arabia to open more doors, or to close them?

And even if Saudi Arabia eventually opens more doors, will anyone be willing to walk through them?

Replies (3)

October 19, 2018 at 8:19 PM

The lack of any news from Saudi is very telling. Either they are guilty of killing a journalist or participated in a cover up. I would not trust visiting Saudi (or China) with how they handled such situations.

October 20, 2018 at 6:20 PM

Politics is theater and business is business so I think at IAAPA things will go no mater how many people get tortured or killed for whatever good cause that country seems worthy of such an act. Whether it's a Saudi consulate in Turkey or Guantanamo Bay...

October 21, 2018 at 10:42 AM

Except the difference between Guantanamo Bay is that we are not hiding it and at least half of the nation is trying to shut it down. While USA does have problems, it is a little disingenuous to lump us in with Saudi Arabia, a country that just recently allowed women to drive and is run by a dictatorial monarchy.

Well, Saudi Arabia has always had a bit of a problem showing that they are safe for all. The recent news doesn't really help, but it was an image problem that were grappling with either way. The main question for guest would be: Are we safe here?

I mean, where can a theme park go up in the Middle East? Saudi Arabia and UAE are probably the most probable locations.

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