Saudi Arabia: Leisure tourists enter the kingdom

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The sun rises over unrestored areas of the Unesco World Heritage Site Diriyah Gate at the dawn of Saudi leisure tourism.
The sun rises over unrestored areas of the Unesco World Heritage Site Diriyah Gate at the dawn of Saudi leisure tourism. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- In a land where pedigrees are important, Jerry Inzerillo's is impeccable. He was president of operations for Morgans Hotel Group, which included the Morgans, Royalton, Paramount, Delano and Mondrian brands.

As president of Kerzner International, he brought One&Only to life and expanded the Atlantis brand.

As an impresario, he was called upon to orchestrate Nelson Mandela's inauguration (he had been COO of South Africa's Sun City Resort), and for two years he ran IMG Artists, producing events and festivals while managing entertainers.

Even when he was working his way up in hospitality, he had trained with iconic properties: a couple of Four Seasons, Miami's Fontainebleau, the New York Statler Hilton and the Flamingo Las Vegas.

Now, 50 years into his career, Inzerillo has taken on an assignment that, on one level, is a hotelier/promoter's fantasy: a project with a phase one budget of $17.2 billion to help jump-start an entire country's leisure tourism industry.

And on another level -- the country being the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia -- he's got some reputational issues to overcome.

But those reputational challenges are apparently only evident in some parts of the world. I visited Inzerillo in the kingdom in November, about six weeks after it had begun issuing leisure tourist visas. 

"We issued 55,000 this week," he told me as, around us, workers were preparing for the launch of Diriyah Gate, a project Inzerillo had worked on for the previous 18 months. Later that evening, it would be inaugurated in the presence of King Salman bin Abdulaziz and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Jerry Inzerillo, CEO of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority, being interviewed by Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann in the hours before the project was inaugurated in a ceremony attended by the Saudi Arabia’s king and crown prince.
Jerry Inzerillo, CEO of the Diriyah Gate Development Authority, being interviewed by Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann in the hours before the project was inaugurated in a ceremony attended by the Saudi Arabia’s king and crown prince. Photo Credit: Sean C. Kelly

Diriyah Gate is where the seeds of what was to become Saudi Arabia were planted 300 years ago. It's an Unesco World Heritage Site, and some of the distinctive mud-and-straw buildings have survived almost intact, while a great many others have been restored.

The site, on the outskirts of Riyadh, will be the epicenter of a 2.7-square-mile tourism complex that, in concentric circles, will include 20 luxury hotel brands (Aman has already been announced), 100 restaurants, a Formula E (for electric cars) racetrack, a 15,000-seat arena, a Greg Norman golf course and eight museums.

Only "a trickle" of those 55,000 visas went to Americans.

"It's still a proximity issue, an airlift issue," Inzerillo asserted. "Most [visas are going to] China, Japan, India, Germany, Italy, France. We've issued 9,000 to Americans so far, but it's a bit early for them, not just in terms of image, but because it's strictly FIT for now. We'll be adding tour operators and wholesalers, adding more flights, infrastructure, tour buses -- you know, all the organized mechanisms that support multimillion tourist visits."

He continued: "It's coming very quickly. The Saudis are very entrepreneurial, and this is not an impoverished country. The crown prince is dynamic, and he's real, so our tourism ramp-up is going to be very quick. In an American context, [Diriyah] is like Colonial Williamsburg, but Colonial Williamsburg doesn't have a power pack like MBS [Mohammed bin Salman] behind it like this does. I'll have assets open in two years."

A visit to Saudi Arabia

Inzerillo seems confident that negative sentiment about Saudi involvement in the Yemen war and the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi will dissipate. The "not just in terms of image" comment above was his only reference to potential American skepticism about Saudi leadership, and his other comments about the crown prince were effusive.

"I read Mohammed bin Salman's 2030 Vision Statement and asked him about his views on tourism to see if they were really sincere. I was blown away by his commitment to it. When he told me that it was the most important priority in 2030 behind the health of the society and moving away from just an economy of oil, I thought, this is one of these moments in history in which, if you participate, you can shape things. Like what happened with Mandela and me."

Inzerillo has walked similar ground before, taking a high-profile position in a controversial setting, and came out well. He was president of Sun City when it was the target of boycotts for hosting international artists in an apartheid state. But not only was he appointed executive director of Mandela's inauguration, he also became very close friends with Mandela, who later was godfather to Inzerillo's daughter.

I made an effort to keep my wariness about the crown prince's use of power separate from my broader assessment of Saudi Arabia as an emerging leisure tourism site. And although I did not stray more than 90 minutes from Riyadh during my 48-hour visit, I did see a lot of potential.

To begin with, the Diriyah site is unique; the architecture, historic significance and restoration are impressive. That it will be adjacent to a racetrack, golf course and an entertainment stage and it will be populated by luxe hotels and restaurants certainly doesn't strike me as an organic development plan. But then again, the concentration of unexpected and showcase attractions in a desert setting hasn't hurt Las Vegas or Dubai.

Ahmad bin Aqil al-Khatib, chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage.
Ahmad bin Aqil al-Khatib, chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

The most obvious difference, even from Dubai, is that there is no access to alcohol in Saudi Arabia. (Emirati in Dubai are not sold alcohol, but allowances are made for visitors.) Still, cultural concessions were made when leisure visas became available to Saudi Arabia, the most notable being that women visitors do not have to wear an abaya, the traditional covering Saudi women wear to comply with decency laws.

I also spoke with Ahmad bin Aqil al-Khatib, chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, about any lingering concern in the kingdom about foreign influences diluting Saudi culture and tradition.

"Visitors do have to respect the culture," he began, and indeed, the e-visa application process is quite clear on this point. "But Saudi Arabia is not new to tourism. Every year, we host 18 million religious tourists from 50 countries [during the pilgrimage to Mecca]. After they perform their prayers, they tour the cities, and we welcome them and respect them.

"And now we're opening the country for leisure tourists and the meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions businesses," he continued, "as well as for visits to friends and family. We believe in our culture, we like our culture, but we are targeting 30 million international tourists -- the same number as our population."

These visitors, Al-Khatib predicted, will not unduly influence residents.

"We have 800,000 of our young people studying in more than 30 countries, including the U.S.," he said. "They are young, at a sensitive age, but they come back after five years. If they would have wanted to change, they would have changed."

Social media influencer Bree Rose (Instagram: @EyeofShe) strolls through the dunes about 90 minutes outside Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Social media influencer Bree Rose (Instagram: @EyeofShe) strolls through the dunes about 90 minutes outside Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

I joined some journalists and social media influencers on a trip into the desert from Riyadh organized by Tariq al-Salamah, co-managing director of the tour operator Al Boraq. He seemed quite comfortable escorting Western visitors into the dunes in four-wheel-drive vehicles, laying out carpets on the sand and serving dates and tea.

My interactions with Al-Salamah and other Saudis who took me around Riyadh were quite cordial and reflected an excitement on the part of the Saudis for what tourism might mean to their future, particularly after having lived in isolation from parts of the world for so long.

The nation has many other tourism projects in the works, most prominently Neom, a futuristic city being built along the Red Sea at a cost of $500 billion.

My sense is that the country's tourism story will be a work in progress for at least another five years. I'm partial to visiting countries when tourism is young and tourists are still a novelty rather than an inconvenience or viewed purely in transactional terms. Saudi Arabia presents a rare opportunity to be among the first to visit a country that has been restricted for almost 80 years, and there's a trade-off -- perhaps a payoff -- to arriving before the primary attractions are built: You may not be able to play golf yet, but you'll see a culture that, by dint of having opened its doors, is in some ways as eager and excited by the prospect of seeing something different as visitors are.

Tariq al Salamah, comanaging director of the tour operator Al Boraq, prepares to serve tea and dates to journalists and social media influencers on the excursion into the desert.
Tariq al Salamah, comanaging director of the tour operator Al Boraq, prepares to serve tea and dates to journalists and social media influencers on the excursion into the desert. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann

Clarification: This report was updated to clarify Jerry Inzerillo’s role at Morgans Hotel Group. 

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