Surprising developments in Saudi Arabia


This week I saw two words that I never thought I'd see partnered in an announcement about luxury travel: Richard Branson and Saudi Arabia.

After all, the hip, sexy persona that Branson has carefully crafted for himself and his businesses is in many ways the antithesis to everything Saudi Arabia represents. This is a guy whose airline, Virgin Atlantic, was known for hiring only young attractive flight attendants, and who developed a corporate culture around a theme with strong undertones of beautiful people and partying.

So, yes, I was a bit surprised when the Saudi government announced Branson was its first foreign investor in its first massive international tourism development project, which aims to turn 50 Saudi Arabian islands in the Red Sea into luxury tourism destinations.

Arabian Business said Saudi officials called it "a clear sign that Saudi Arabia is opening its doors to international tourism" as it works to diversify its economy.

Indeed, while Dubai, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, even the more conservative Oman, have been nurturing international travelers, Saudi Arabia's inbound tourism has centered mostly around Muslims making their pilgrimage to Mecca. When it comes to Western travelers, only those visiting family, on business or on tightly controlled tours have generally been allowed into the country. That has never really been an issue, as not many Westerners have really been clamoring to visit a country that bans alcohol and is widely denounced for its treatment of women as second-class citizens.

But as Branson wrote after his visit there last week, times are changing. His visit coincided with the kingdom's decision to lift its ban on women driving, an act Branson described as one "of many incremental reforms driven by Saudi Arabia's young and charismatic crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, who, with his father, is committed to moving his country into the modern world and bringing its citizens with him."

As for Saudi Arabia as a destination, Branson emphasized its history and pristine beauty.

"Seeing this Red Sea Project up close, I was amazed at how completely untouched the landscape is," Branson wrote. "Standing on the islands, we could see turtles pulling themselves in and out of the water to lay their eggs, while eagle rays and dugongs swam past. It is a truly unspoilt ocean environment, possibly one of the last marine wonders of the world, and given the right protections, it could stay that way for decades to come."

As a college student, I spent a few summers in Dhahran, visiting my parents who spent 10 years there with Saudi Aramco. The number of people who were, and still are, a bit horrified that a woman would even consider traveling there always surprised me. But for me it was always a fascinating adventure to another time and another world.

And for today's adventurous traveler, the Red Sea development certainly promises to be an exciting destination that meets the authentic, off-the-beaten path and experiential categories on the modern luxury checklist.

Still, it will no doubt take many years and many more progressive acts by the royal family to lure Western travelers in any real numbers.

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