In what many see as one of the world's most significant
shifts in tourism policy, the traditionally closed Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is
opening its borders to non-Muslim leisure travelers as construction begins on its
ambitious project to turn some of the last pristine islands and landscapes
along the Red Sea into a next-generation, ecofriendly luxury haven.
Development of the Red Sea Project, an initiative by Crown
Prince Mohammed bin Salman to diversify the kingdom's oil-dominated economy,
officially began last month with the opening of the first base camp for the
workers who will start building the infrastructure. Plans call for a mix of
luxury and premium beach and mountain resorts, wellness centers, homes and
marinas capable of hosting up to a million visitors a year.
John Pagano, CEO of the Red Sea Development Co., called the
destination one of the "last unexplored frontiers in tourism," adding
that it will offer "a very compelling proposition for Western travelers."
On the Record
Red Sea Development Co. CEO John Pagano discusses Saudi Arabia's move to diversify its
economy with a strong play in luxury tourism with the Red Sea Project. Read More
"We are developing the first fully integrated, luxury,
mixed-use destination in the Middle East at a location offering a temperate
year-round climate," he said. "There is currently no competing
destination that offers international travelers the opportunity to visit the
Middle East and enjoy such a unique collection of experiences, spanning
heritage and culture, diverse landscapes and an array of thriving ecosystems."
Pagano did not say, however, whether, in a effort to attract
Western tourists, the kingdom might waive its ban on alcohol or relax its
expectations for how women must dress and act. Currently, women are expected to
be mostly covered from head to toe. And while Western women are not generally
expected to wear the traditional black abaya, apparel such as shorts, sun
dresses and other common summer and resort wear are unacceptable public attire.
"Government policy lies within the authority of
government, and it would be inappropriate for us to speculate on potential
future legislation," Pagano said when asked about the conservative rules. "However,
the Red Sea Project will be formed in a special economic zone with a
world-class regulatory environment created around established international
norms and designed to welcome visitors and investors alike."
Development begins as Saudi Arabia is implementing an e-visa
system that will enable tourists to gain entry within 24 hours. It's a major
shift for the kingdom, which until now has reserved its visas mostly for
foreigners working or visiting family in the country and for Muslims making
pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina.
However, the Arab News reported that the country has been
loosening those policies slowly, issuing some 9,000 revisions over the past
year or so for special events such as Formula E motor racing, the Italian Super
Cup football match in Jeddah, the King Abdul Aziz Camel Festival and the Winter
at Tantora festival in Al-Ula.
A rendering of the diverse landscape highlighted by the Red Sea Project.
Under the new system, general tourist visas will be
available easily and quickly, even for women traveling alone, the Arab News
reported. That represents another milestone of sorts for a country that only
recently began allowing women to drive and which still gives men complete
control over their spouses' passports.
"There is a huge demand for tourism, especially from
the U.S., European countries and Japan," Khalid Al-Kahtani, a counselor at
the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' visa department, told the newspaper.
As for the Red Sea Project, the flagship of the crown prince's
economic diversification plan, Pagano said phase one has been fully funded and
that nearly $750 million in development and construction contracts have been
The government-backed development company is also actively
seeking private investors and hotel partners, he said.
"We are talking to major hotel brands at the luxury end
of the market, and we have received very positive feedback on the quality of
the destination and the growth opportunity presented by the development of the
Saudi tourism industry," he said. "Those conversations are ongoing,
and we will announce final agreements in due course."
It remains unclear, however, if those efforts will be
affected over the long term by the murder last year of Saudi dissident and
Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
The only publicly announced foreign investor in the Red Sea
Project, Richard Branson, pulled out after multiple news reports linked the
crown price and his close associates to Khashoggi's killing. Branson and
another key business leader, AOL founder Steve Case, also resigned from the
project's advisory board.
The board is still active, Pagano said, adding that the
virtual who's who of business, environmental, tourism and conservation experts
that make up the panel "helped 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."
He did not specify, however, how many members remain, saying
only, "We respect the decision of those who chose to step back from the
project, and we hope that they will resume their roles in time. We will
continue to welcome foreign investors and partner organizations keen to
participate in this exciting project."