Saudi Arabia assembles advisers for Red Sea tourism project

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Saudi Arabia has tapped global business and conservation leaders to advise the country on its improbable but ambitious plans to develop a luxury tourism destination in one of the world's few remaining undiscovered and untouched marine wonderlands.

The Red Sea Project last week announced it had enlisted the experts to help with plans to develop resorts and residences on 50 pristine islands in the Red Sea.

Richard Branson, who last year announced he would become the first private investor in the project, tops the list, which also includes Philippe Cousteau Jr., grandson of Jacques Cousteau and founder and president of EarthEcho International; Steve Case, who founded America Online; Sven-Olof Lindblad, CEO of Lindblad Expeditions; Frits van Paasschen, former CEO of Starwood Hotels & Resorts; and Six Senses founder Sonu Shivdasani.

Other participants are Carlos Duarte, professor at the Red Sea Research Center; J. Carl Ganter, CEO of the Vector Center; Paul Holthus, founder, president and CEO of the World Ocean Council; Aradhana Khowala, CEO and founder of Aptamind Partners; William McDonough, founder of William McDonough and Partners; and Vijay Poonoosamy, director of QI Group.

The Red Sea Development Co., a wholly owned entity incorporated earlier this year by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, said the advisory board will help set the Red Sea Project's agenda "to develop and implement a new international standard in environmental protection and restoration, sustainable development, innovation and luxury tourism."

Project CEO John Pagano said, "Utilizing this group of advisers to guide the Red Sea Development Co. is crucial to creating a world-class project of this scale. The collective expertise of this impressive group will help us to exceed the inspirational goals set for the tourism sector in Vision 2030," Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman's economic blueprint for the country.

It's an improbable and lofty goal for a country that Westerners generally know mostly for its oil and abysmal record on women's and human rights.

And while the kingdom has a substantial luxury infrastructure already in place with brands like Ritz-Carlton and Fairmont, it's a country that has held little draw or appetite for Western tourists. Alcohol is strictly forbidden. Tourist visas are restricted to tightly controlled tours, and the government can be unpredictable and far from transparent.

Late last year, for example, the crown prince turned the Ritz-Carlton in Riyadh into a lockup for months after ordering the arrest of a virtual who's who of royal family members and the country's elite in what was described as an anticorruption crackdown.

Branson, however, said last year after his first visit to the Red Sea site, which coincided with the crown prince's announcement of plans to lift the kingdom's ban on women driving, that times are changing.

In a blog, Branson called that move one "of many incremental reforms driven by Saudi Arabia's young and charismatic crown prince … who, with his father, is committed to moving his country into the modern world and bringing its citizens with him."

Arabian Business, an English-language publication, at the time reported that Saudi officials called it "a clear sign that Saudi Arabia is opening its doors to international tourism" as it works to diversify its economy.

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