The Tourism and Hospitality Industry in Saudi Arabia: The Intercultural Willingness to Communicate

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Saudi Arabia receives the highest number of tourists visiting the Gulf regions compared to the other members of the cooperation Council for the Arab States. The Arab state provides visitors with rich and diverse culture, marvellous hospitality, and charming local people. Besides being a favourite tourist destination, especially in principal cities such as Riyadh, Saudi Arabia is also a leading investment destination for international investors. Saudi’s tourism and hospitality industry is growing fast, which is largely attributable to intercultural communication effectiveness of the Saudi citizens. By implication, the large number of visitors to Saudi Arabia relate to rich and diverse tourist attractions as well as the high intercultural ability of the Saudi people. Nevertheless, the Saudi citizens, though they have the willingness or the desire to communicate with visitors/tourists, they face many challenges in attempting to communicate with them. Some of these challenges include the tendency towards ethnocentrism, language barriers, and socio-cultural differences. The aim of this paper is to examine the intercultural willingness to communicate (IWTC) with visitors coupled with language and ethnocentrism as barriers to effective intercultural communication in a Saudi Arabian context (Riyadh). The research will also explore the implications of IWTC, language barrier, and ethnocentrism to the tourism and hospitality industry in Saudi Arabia, particularly in Riyadh.

The Intercultural Willingness to Communicate (IWTC)

Normally, people with a particular social/cultural identity exhibit consciousness towards people they meet. From the interpersonal contacts, they decide who is similar or different from them; a practice that defines whom they would associate with in their activities. According to McCroskey (1992), individuals of a given identity often decide on whom to meet or communicate with, whether to “approach or ignore strangers, or people from unfamiliar cultural background” (p. 23). The act of “ignoring” people with unfamiliar cultural characteristics reflects the people’s unwillingness to communicate. In this context, the unwillingness to communicate shows how much people choose to or fail to communicate in different situations. In contrast, the willingness to communicate implies the peoples’ tendency to initiate communication in different intercultural situations (Kassing, 1997, p. 396). Thus, intercultural communication appreciably influences interpersonal communication.

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Conversely, the unwillingness to communicate is attributable to communication apprehension, which varies from one culture to another. For instance, in Western cultures, silence implies disinterest or apathy and thus, a sign of “unwillingness to communicate” (McCroskey, & Richmond, 1990, p. 76). In contrast, in Saudi Arabia and Asia in general, silence is an essential communication tool. Accordingly, Santos and Rozier, (2007, p. 27) groups cultures into low-context and high-context cultures; low-context cultures prefer verbal communication while high-context cultures prefer non-verbal cues. In this regard, Saudis belong to high-context culture. Therefore, communication apprehension, defined as, “anxiety or fear associated with intercultural communication” (McCroskey, 1992, p. 28), may not apply across cultures. Kassing (1997, p. 403) further argues that an individual may be willing to communicate with a person with a cultural background similar to his/her own rather than communicating with someone they perceive to possess little or no socio-cultural similarity. Consequently, IWTC hinders intercultural communication with profound ramifications on tourism and hospitality industry.

Intercultural willingness to communicate (IWTC) has implications on the intercultural communication competence. Prior research on IWTC raises various issues on intercultural communication. Kassing (1997, p. 399) argues that IWTC influences intercultural communication competence. This means that IWTC is a construct of intercultural communication competence. In contrast, Liebkind, Nyström, Honkanummi and Lange establishes that Saudis display a low IWTC because of their behaviour; silence during communication with a stranger (2004, p. 149). The silence or nonverbal communication is indicative of high-context culture. Bradford, Allen, and Beisser, observe that, behavioural flexibility can result to a reduction in ethnocentrism that leads to the effectiveness in intercultural communication (2000, p. 31). This explains why some people are more likely to initiate more encounters and subsequently develop more relationships with people from dissimilar cultural backgrounds, while others cannot. It is partly related to their level of ethnocentrism. Gudykunst (1983, p. 53) uses intercultural sensitivity to explain the tendency of people to initiate and develop healthy relationships with people of diverse cultures.

Nevertheless, the conditions preceding IWTC vary from one culture to another. As such, silence or non-verbal cues as common among Saudis, may be misconstrued as low IWTC in Western cultural context. While the unwillingness to communicate may stem from fear or communication anxiety, in Saudi Arabia context, this may be because of the language barrier and ethnocentrism. Furthermore, the high numbers of international visitors to Saudi’s tourist destinations imply high levels of IWTC. On the contrary, unwillingness to communicate has profound implications on cross-cultural relationships. A study by Hubbert, Geuerro, and Gudykunst, (1999, p. 15) involving American and foreign students studying in the US established that unwillingness to engage in intercultural communication is a product of situational factors and personal characteristics. As such, factors such as ethnocentrism, communication apprehension (CA), argumentativeness, and aggressiveness result in low IWTC. For students studying in foreign countries, the low IWTC has been associated with high rates of dropouts, low recall rates and an overall low performance in college (Hackman, & Barthel-Hackman, 1993, p. 282). Another study by Donovan and MacIntyre (2004, p. 425) established an inverse relationship between CA among international teaching assistants and their satisfaction, perceptions and relationships with their students with regard to instruction.

Lin, Rancer, and Lim (2003, p. 119) conducted a cross-cultural comparison of IWTC and ethnocentrism between American and Korean college students. The study revealed that Korean students exhibited high scores on both IWTC and ethnocentrism relative to their American counterparts (2003, p. 221). This implies that the willingness to communicate interculturally is not always defined by ethnocentrism. The present study is centred on the assumption that high levels of ethnocentrism does not translate to low IWTC. This raises the issue of intra-cultural and inter-cultural WTC. Although the two structures bear some degree of connection, high intra-cultural WTC does not always translate to high IWTC. Neuliep, Chaudoir, and McCroskey (2001, p. 138) argue that, individuals are more likely to initiate communication with members of their social/cultural group than with individuals from a different cultural background.

For Riyadh citizens, their high willingness to communicate interculturally can be reflected by their desire to communicate with the tourists who visit them. By contrast, if the citizens show more willingness to communicate interculturally than inter-culturally, then they would only associate with people of their social/cultural characteristics. IWTC among Riyadh citizens can be indicated by the readiness to communicate and associate with visitors from foreign countries. On the other hand, intra-cultural willingness to communicate predisposes the citizens to communication apprehension and ethnocentric behaviour. Consequently, they may not be willing to associate well with visitors or make friends with visitors from other countries. This can bring adverse effects on cultural tourism, as visitors feel unwelcome and consider the people hostile to visitors. Besides ethnocentrism and communication apprehension, language barrier can also influence the intercultural willingness to communicate. Understandably, most Riyadh citizens predominantly communicate in Arabic; thus, they face difficulties in communicating with international visitors who speak English. The majority of tourists and business people visiting Riyadh speak English language. In addition, the high socio-cultural difference between Saudi culture and Western culture means that most citizens may not be exposed to Western way of life, communication patterns and lifestyles (Chen, & Starosta, 1998, p. 124). As such, due to the socio-cultural differences, a Riyadh citizen may not communicate well with a visitor, despite his/her desire to do so.


Ethnocentrism refers to the behaviour of criticizing the cultural group of other people with reference to their lifestyles, social life, backgrounds, culture and race (Neuliep, 2002, p. 211). People with ethnocentric behaviour, therefore, view or judge other groups based on their own cultural standards. As such, ethnocentrism is a product of psychological and social factors associated with in-group/out-group behaviours and attitudes (Balabanis et al., 2001, p.159). This means that an individual may not initiate a communication or socialize at all with other people from different backgrounds. It is determined using the GENE score questionnaires. Most individuals who practices ethnocentric behaviours tend to be self-cantered people; full of pride to a point where they perceive their culture as being superior compared to others. Therefore, individuals who practice ethnocentrism view themselves perfect and they assume that they can be excellent models for other cultures (Neuliep, Chaudoir & McCroskey, 2001). Nuliep et al (2001) characterizes ethnocentric groups as having attitudes that they are “superior and strong” while the out-group members are “weak and inferior”; reflected behaviourally as a tendency to establish cooperative relations with themselves and disobedience to the out-group members. As such, ethnocentrism affects people’s tendency to communicate inter-culturally despite the desire to do so.

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Ethnocentrism, besides language barriers, is another sensitive factor that may affect the Saudi citizen’s IWTC. This arises from the fact that Saudi citizens, genuinely value their culture and as a result, they believe it is the best in comparison with other cultures in the world. Culture for Riyadh citizens is central to their lifestyles, their religion and communication patterns. Furthermore, this experience of the Riyadh citizens is cantered on what they believe about their culture; as a source of motivation for their behaviour. Nevertheless, this form of behaviour is not only practiced by the Riyadh citizens and by extension, Saudi citizens, but individuals from other cultures also view their culture as the best in comparison to the others (Corrigan, Penington, & McCroskey, 2006, p. 26). Besides, cultural preservation in terms of language, practices, and cultural heritage is emphasized in any society. In Saudis context, cultural artefacts, cuisines, and natural features are significant tourist attractions.

Often, many people subjectively perceive their cultural practices as normal and consequently a source of their own motivation and behaviour. However, this affects their intercultural sensitivity and instead promotes in-group loyalty. Nuliep and McCroskey (1997) maintain that ethnocentrism has both positive and negative consequences. Ethnocentrism can potentially form the basis for group loyalty and patriotism for one’s country or cultural group. By contrast, ethnocentrism has potential negative consequences; it acts as an effective barrier to intercultural communication. This research will focus on ethnocentrism as a risk factor for tourism and its effects on of IWTC. According to Hammer, Gudykunst, and Wiseman, high degrees of ethnocentrism can lead to misperceptions of individuals with different cultural backgrounds or their behaviours, this, by extension could affect inter-cultural communication (1978, p. 386). Arasaratnam and Banerjee examined the relationship between the level of ethnocentrism and the way people communicate. They established that, a high level of ethnocentrism creates a distance between communicators with different cultural backgrounds (2007, p. 304). In short, ethnocentrism largely affects how people communicate with other people with different cultural backgrounds. Furthermore, since ethnocentrism exists in all cultures, then it most directly influences inter-cultural communication.

Often, people perform activities out of our own ethnocentric ideas without considering the social implications of their actions (Barraclough, Christophel & McCroskey, 1988, p. 189). In this regard, in several occasions, stereotypes displayed as chauvinism block other people from accessing their rightful places or engaging in intercultural activities (Amir, 1969, p. 321). For instance, Riyadh Citizens, and by extension the Saudi citizens, cannot block their national borders from international visitors, because they possess higher IWTC with foreign visitors. Otherwise, they would not allow international visitors with conflicting worldviews and perspectives into their country or city. In this case, the citizens would be practicing intra-cultural willingness to communicate rather than IWTC. However, since this is not the case, it means that Riyadh citizens have IWTC with international tourists as they do with members of their own culture. In fact, Saudi citizens normally welcome visitors as reflected in their hospitality towards international visitors (Matveev, 2004, p. 63). Nevertheless, this does not mean that the Riyadh citizens practice zero ethnocentrism but rather implies intercultural sensitivity or flexibility among these citizens.

Stereotypes, which are observed as inflexible practices and resistant to change, characterize many cultures. The cultural beliefs among young men and even adults are, largely shaped by underlying stereotypes (Kassing, 1997, p. 397). Stereotypes have the tendency to promote intra-cultural and in-group relations. As a result, most countries are not ready to embrace change especially with regard to cultural practices. In Saudi, children are brought up exclusively in Saudis cultural settings. As such, the adults and youth are largely unaware of other cultures because of the ethnocentric nature of the settings of their upbringing. As adults, they become inter-culturally insensitive and have low cross-cultural competence, as they are not able to accommodate other cultures. Thus, despite their desire to communicate with foreign visitors, the low intercultural competence deters them from readily embracing the international visitors.

The IWTC and Ethnocentrism

Previous research indicates a correlation between IWTC and ethnocentrism. In particular, previous research supports the idea that high levels of ethnocentrism results to low levels of IWTC. Lin, Rancer, and Lim (2003, p. 119) examined cross-cultural differences in ethnocentrism and IWTC between American and Korean college students. The results from this study revealed higher IWTC and ethnocentrism scores for American students compared to Korean students. Overall, the female students exhibited higher levels of IWTC and lower levels of ethnocentrism than male students did. Nevertheless, results from earlier research involving Asian and Western cultures indicated otherwise; Japanese students scored higher on ethnocentrism compared to the American students (Gudykunst, Nishida, & Chua, 1987, p. 173). This implies that the proposed inverse relationship between IWTC and ethnocentrism may not apply in all cultures.

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Further, Lin et al. contend that the absence of the inverse correlation between ethnocentrism and IWTC can be attributed to the diverse nature of the US population (2003, p. 125). They further argue that, the American students, despite the high ethnocentric score, have more opportunities for cross-cultural interactions, which would ultimately result to higher levels of intercultural willingness to communicate. Another research by Lin, Rancer and Trimbitas (2005, p.139) involved a comparison of IWTC and ethnocentrism between American and Romanian college students. The study revealed that, Romanian students exhibit higher levels of ethnocentrism, but lower IWTC compared to the American students. The researchers attributed this to fair distribution of the minority and majority ethnic populations in Romania. The results of this study indicated the expected inverse relationship between IWTC and ethnocentrism. Thus, by extension, the IWTC is influenced by communication apprehension and ethnocentrism, which has implications for a student’s tendency to participate in cultural exchange programs.

This study proposes to examine the relationship between IWTC and ethnocentrism in a Riyadh context alongside other related factors such as social initiative, intercultural communication competence, and cross-cultural interaction. These factors have far-reaching effects on the hospitality of the Riyadh citizens and the tourism industry.


In Saudi Arabia, majority of the population speaks Arabic as the official language. A foreign language (English language) is spoken by a small section of the population, mainly by corporate executives and visitors from European countries and the United States. Given that most Riyadh citizens only know how to communicate in Arabic and the fact that visitors from Western cultures cannot speak Arabic, the Saudis have trouble communicating with them. In this context, language is an effective barrier to intercultural communication. Though the English language is considered an official global language (Myers, & Boothe, 2000, p. 233), its usage in public communication, in Riyadh, is still low.

The Saudi government through the Ministry of Education has implemented a number of strategies to promote learning of English in schools. Currently, English language is a compulsory language studied in all Saudi schools and student exchange programs are common. This stems from the realization that language barrier is a considerable challenge facing Saudis, who possess the desire to communicate with foreign citizens from different parts of the world (Clement, Baker, & MacIntyre, 2003, p. 197). Besides Arabic, some Saudi minority populations speak Urdu, Turkish, and Farsi, which are common Asian languages. Riyadh citizens working in international firms face difficulties when communicating with other employees due to the language barrier (Ting-Toomey, 1999, p. 124). Their inability to communicate effectively in English arises from the fact that, during their training, the language of instruction is Arabic. However, the current educational initiatives including making English a compulsory second language in schools would minimize the effects of the language barrier and facilitate effective intercultural communication. This research will involve questionnaires to evaluate the Riyadh citizen’s preferred language of communication with foreigners, presumably from English speaking countries. Given that not many Riyadh citizens are proficient in English, this research will explore whether these citizens would use English, supposing they knew it, in intercultural communication.

Language barrier is also experienced in the corporate sector. Strong bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States have led to increased capital and investment flows into Saudi Arabia (Spitzberg, & Cupach, 1984, p.67). This has presented opportunities to Saudi citizens in terms of employment opportunities in many sectors. However, the language barrier hinders effective intercultural communication between Riyadh citizens and their American employers. In this regard, the proposed research will examine language in the context of public and intercultural communications. Evidently, the Saudi citizen’s limited proficiency in English language is a serious impediment to intercultural learning. This research intends to the relationship between language and IWTC in Saudi (Riyadh) context. The research will involve questionnaires that will measure the preferred language of communication, the likelihood to initiate intercultural communication and the preferred communication method (verbal or nonverbal) among Riyadh citizens. In this way, the research will accomplish two objectives; explore language as a barrier to effective cross-cultural communication and ethnocentrism as an impediment to intercultural interaction.

Supporting Intercultural Communication

Ethnocentrism and language barrier among the Saudis living in Riyadh may largely influence their IWTC. This means that, any strategy geared towards supporting intercultural communication between Riyadh citizens and international visitors must aim at reducing ethnocentrism and promoting English language use in public communication. Turner, Hewstone, and Voci (2007, p. 377) argue that, teachers have a role to play in promoting cultural awareness and intercultural sensitivity among students. Indeed, multicultural education should be at the forefront in schools to enable students learn to appreciate cultural diversity, and develop positive attitudes toward other cultures. Incorporation of multicultural education in school curricula will broaden the students’ perspectives on cultures and eliminate cultural stereotypes (Gardner, 1962, p. 241). In this regard, the present study will involve questionnaires to assess the Riyadh’s opinions on multicultural education in schools and its effectiveness in promoting intercultural communication.

Another approach for supporting intercultural communication is through family communication. Often, parental attitudes towards foreign cultures shapes ethnocentric opinions in children as the parents are role models for their children. Lack of positive family communication may deter intercultural communication. Nevertheless, schools can also influence the students’ attitudes towards intercultural communication through positive communication in the classroom. Neuliep and Ryan (1998, p. 88) suggest that teachers both in urban and rural schools should teach cultural studies in the classrooms. He established that negative teacher or parental attitudes towards foreign cultures influences students’ tendency to engage in intercultural communication. Thus, if culture is taught in a positive way in classrooms, it will foster positive cultural attitudes and cultural competence in students. This will result to low levels of ethnocentrism (GENE scores) and higher IWTC. In this aspect, the proposed research will investigate the proactive steps taken by Riyadh citizens to encourage or improve intercultural skills in the society. In addition, the influence they would have on adolescents’ attitudes on cultural diversity from a teacher’s perspective will be sought.

Besides teaching culture and diversity, teaching ethnocentrism in classrooms can foster “modest” ethnocentric ideas among students. Teachers can foster these attitudes by teaching cultural similarities and differences (Fluck, Clouse, & Shooshtari, 2007, p. 134). Cultural days, where students learn aspects of a variety of cultures will increase cultural awareness and erode negative stereotypes. According to Schmidt et al (2007, p. 89), involving students in safe cultural practices can eliminate cultural stereotypes, which are often constructs of ethnocentrism. Student exchange programs where students visit overseas colleges for studies, can enhance cultural awareness, and facilitates intercultural exchange. This can also be achieved through online cultural programs where students engage in programs on multicultural studies. In effect, online interaction among students from diverse cultures and tutors will eliminate stereotypes and promote cultural tolerance. It would also reduce ethnocentric attitudes and foster IWTC among Riyadh young people. On the other hand, promoting English language use in public communication would enhance English proficiency among Riyadh citizens. This will lead to high IWTC, which will foster intercultural communication between the Riyadh citizens and tourists visiting Riyadh.

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