Let us start with the tourism outlook for 2012. Do you think Kuwait can develop sustainable tourism in the future? What are the difficulties you see?
We are the only place in Kuwait and in the Gulf area that would give people the opportunity to watch IMAX and 3D format films that talk about environment, something that is very important.
I do not see Kuwait as a tourism-oriented country, to begin with. Kuwait should increase some entertainment places for its people, but not for encouraging people from outside to come… It is a country most driven by business objectives that would give people the desire to work, but opening it for tourism would lead to another issue.
I think Kuwait lacks some projects, some vital fund places for the public: educational, fun-learning, entertaining, interactive – like exhibits. That, we are focussing on. For instance, when you are with your family or your friends, where can you go?
It can be somewhere to have dinner together, or a shopping mall, or the scientific center. Those are the projects in need of increasing and I think that the private sector should contribute in this field.
Do you see investment opportunities in that regard?
Yes, exactly. But the problem is the hurdles that the private sector faces when it deals with government agencies: the bureaucracy, the big circle they need to go around in order to get the permits they need for their facility or institution.
Kuwait investors, in the last three to five decades, have had the tendency to invest outside of Kuwait. The reason why they don’t invest inside Kuwait is precisely because of the hurdles and difficulties they face in doing so. I am being very frank in telling you about all this, although I can imagine not everyone has done the same… This is the real situation.
As a scientific center, you are one of the institutions that are here to provide leisure & entertainment activities for the Kuwaiti people and expats. Can you talk about the center a little more in depth? Can we find any other such centers in the GCC region?
When we started, we were the very first center in the whole region of the Middle East. The very first science center founded was the “Exploratorium” of San Francisco in 1968. After that, other science centers were established in the United States, Europe, Southeast Asia, Australia and South Africa.
Our science center is a member of ECSITE and ASTC, science center networks. There is the ASPAC network in Southeast Asia and the SASTeC network in Africa. We asked ourselves: “Why don’t we have our very own network?”
In 2006, we collaborated with the Labyrinth of Alexandria (Confirm?), Prince Sultan of Saudi Arabia and the Turkish foundation for science centers, and we founded our own network called NAMES, which gathered North Africa and the Middle East science centers together as one, and of which I am currently the president.
We are the only place in Kuwait and in the Gulf area that would give people the opportunity to watch IMAX and 3D format films that talk about environment, something that is very important. We are focussing our activities in science and conservation of the environment, considering the fragility of our gulf which has been devastated by oil spills and three or four wars that have taken place in the last decades. We want to raise awareness for the children, not only for the outside but also for the inside.
What role does the scientific center play in Kuwait? What is your mandate?
Like that of any science center, really. Our responsibility is to simplify science, make science into a fun topic rather than a hated topic for any student in the schools, through interactive exhibits that would attract people or children to the scientific center to play – while learning at the same time. This it the aim of all of our attractions and of the overall experience.
How difficult is it to sell science in Kuwait and what are the main challenges and problems faced, both in a short-term and long-term perspective?
This question is difficult to answer as a science center, which I think should be addressed by the Ministry of Education. I think we have a problem in the education field, in dealing with children of the current generation. In my opinion, the curriculum and the system should be reviewed within the state of Kuwait.
I will not talk about other countries, but such is the situation in my country. Many parents now enrol their children in private schools, but not in state-run schools – that is what the statistics say happened after the Iraq invasion of Kuwait. Why is that? That is simply because the education in government schools is deteriorating, quite unfortunately.
Now, the challenge of the scientific center of Kuwait, as I said, is the same as for any other center. We cannot change the education nor can we change the system, but we can help the process. What we need to do is create useful programs and workshops in collaboration with the schools. Indeed, we meet with the school principals and teachers in order to create some programs and workshops that will truly focus on the children’s issues and tackle those issues they are facing; that is, physics, maths, geology, biology and other science specialties.
We change our exhibits every six months and create programs and workshops to suit the children’s and the school’s needs.
You mentioned the fact that you need to reach sponsors like oil companies, for instance. Are there any financial challenges, other than you mentioned already?
If you visit any science center in the world, you will always hear complaints about their operation. The operation of any science center is expensive, whether it’s the exhibits or the manpower, so some centers or maybe all of them suffer from those expenses.
In that event, they go to sponsors, donors and foundations for help. We, in Kuwait, right from the beginning, we have always thought that there was room for saving and so we created other programs and investment, and managed to have some companies sponsor our activities. I do not want to mention any names, but foreign oil companies were the main contributors, as well as some banks, insurance companies and mobile companies.
What is the attitude of the public sector towards the scientific center?
Today, after our eleven years of operation, many agencies and companies consider the scientific center as a venue to organise their special events or open days. Recently, we had a big event organised by all of the oil sector companies.
They were here for a full day, watched an IMAX film, which was the latest film “The Last Reef” in 3D, they went to the aquarium and experienced the latest exhibit which we just brought in from Helsinki. So we have a good relationship with the government agencies as well as with the private sectors. Actually, most of the government agencies, high delegates and president who come to Kuwait choose the science center as the place to visit.
What are the projects for the next six to twelve months that you are working on?
It is time for expansion. KFAS will help finance our expansion which will consist of a dolphinarium and sea mammal center, as well as a bigger area for interactive exhibits. This is our future ambition that we just started to design.
We host some conferences, but we don’t really organize them. In other words, we accept the requests from the networks which hold them. It is kind of difficult to have conferences here too, because we don’t have an auditorium. That is also part of our expansion plans.
At present, the only “auditorium” we can use is our IMAX theatre, which means we need to change our film program. We just started, and we are doing the space program right now. It will be costly. We don’t know yet how long it will be but as we speak, we think that it should take from 3 to 4 years, for the design development and the building. We have secured the financing from the KFAS. To give you an idea, the whole center has cost us US$ 80 million to date.
That includes 1 km of waterfront development. I think it should cost about half as much for our expansion.
You have a very privileged situation here in Kuwait. You have one the most interesting things to be seen, you don’t have major issues and 650,000 visitors per year.
That is right, but still, there is a problem to consider. People, when they go with their holiday money to Dubai, Europe or America, might need to pay as much as US$ 30 to visit an aquarium. However, the locals, when they need to pay US$ 10 for those services, complain. That is another issue: local people want lower prices, but those people, when they go out to other countries, pay three times as much. This is a phenomenon that we can observe in any part of the world.
The revenue for the visits of 650,000 guests never covers the operation of the Kuwait Scientific Center – the same goes for any facility or museum. We need to turn to other forms of income, such as sponsors, renting out areas like food carts, cafes and snacks, conducting programs like Environmental Day, Water Day, Space Day… Those are special events which we have to hold.
At the end of the day, all those revenues would cover our expenses.
For the future, financially-speaking, are you planning to strengthen your top-line or bottom-line? Are you going to focus on increasing your revenues or on cutting your expenses?
To cut things short… We are not here to make money. The main purpose of the center is not money. We receive continuous support from Kuwait Foundation for the advancement of sciences. Of course, we are in charge of creating revenue to cover our expenses, but even if we do not do that, KFAS will help the scientific center and ensure that it continues its activities. So that is not our strategic point. The main issue is to have a place for Kuwaiti people, the expats and the visitors to visit, to entertain and to learn, as well as helping students with their curriculum. That is what we are here for.
We cannot cut expenses. At present, we are running smoothly. Also, the inflation is about 6% or 6.4% in Kuwait right now. We have to increase our ticket prices, although they have been the same ever since our creation in 2000.
We have a problem here, a dilemma to solve, mainly with the government schools, which have to find out who pays the tickets. They never ask me or the families. Either they take it from the donors or the sponsors. I don’t know how they get the money. Private schools, however, we have no problem with. They ask the families to cover the fees. At any rate, we have no choice but to raise the price of the tickets, especially the aquarium.
Does it ever happen that some people come once and never come back for the same things, so you need to make new things all the time to reach that audience?
One of the challenges here is that Kuwait is small, so we have to maintain repeat visits. We change our exhibits from time to time, twice or thrice a year, and change our films three or four times a year. If we had a marketing campaign that would really publicize our programs and special activities, we would ensure that guests come back for repeat visits.
Also, we are promoting our annual membership, so they might consider that too. Right now, we have about 5000 members, who pay annual fees and come to the center as many times a year as they wish to.