by Hugh Morris, The Telegraph, August 2, 2017
Saudi Arabia has announced plans to create a tourism hotspot nearly twice the size of Wales on its unspoilt Red Sea coastline, in a bid to help double the number of visitors to the Middle Eastern country.
The Kingdom has also indicated that it is prepared to relax its strict laws, such as bans on drinking alcohol, to entice more western holidaymakers. An official statement explained that the transformed area will cover some 34,000 square kilometres between the cities of Umluf and Alwajh, including its 50 islands, and be governed by laws “on par with international standards”.
One document referred to the area as “sem-autonomous” and said it would be governed by “independent laws and a regulatory framework developed and managed by a private committee”, according to Bloomberg.
Saudi Arabia currently welcomes few British visitors. The Kingdom is renowned for its stringent enforcement of Islamic law, its codes of behaviour and dress, and severe penalties for homosexuality, extra-marital sexual relations and possession of alcohol.
The Foreign Office warns Britons that suspects can be held without charge without access to legal representation, while female travellers are warned they must meet their “sponsor” on arrival into the country.
But Saudi officials will hope that the new project will raise the country’s holiday profile, moving its tourism economy away from the annual pilgrimage of the Hajj, when around 3.7million pilgrims travel to Mecca over the course of a week.
Groundbreaking on the Red Sea development is scheduled for late 2019, with the first phase completed by the end of 2022. The Kingdom said it would include “the development of hotels and luxury residential units, as well as all logistical infrastructure – including air, land and sea transport hubs”, and create as many as 35,000 jobs and contribute 15 billion riyals (£3bn) to the nation’s GDP.
The region has the potential to be popular with divers, while Mada’in Saleh – a Unesco-listed settlement likened to Petra in Jordan – is also likely to be a big draw.
This year Saudi Arabia is expected to welcome some 18.7 million visitors, but wants this to grow to 31.5 by 2027. By comparison, Egypt, another popular Red Sea destination welcomed 14.1million in 2010, at its peak, 9.5 in 2011 following a number of terrorist attacks. It is only beginning to recover.
Beyond the Hajj, which non-Muslims are forbidden from attending, visitors to Saudi Arabia might be attracted by its ancient historical sites, captivating deserts and shimmering capital, Riyadh.
Visiting Saudi Arabia for Telegraph Travel in 2013, Frank Gardner wrote of coastal city Jeddah: “As a steamy, Red Sea trading port it has a bustle and buzz like no other place in Saudi Arabia.
Kingdom Tower in Jeddah is set to be the world's tallest if completed
“In the winding, labyrinthine backstreets of the old quarter, known as the ‘Balad’, you hear every language and dialect of the region, spoken by Egyptians, Sudanese, Eritreans, Somalis and Yemenis.”
The city’s highlights include Souq al-Akawi, Al-Tayibat City Museum for International Civilisation, and the Corniche.
Investment for the Red Sea project will come initially from the Public Investment Fund, run by Prince Mohammed, while partnerships with international companies will come later.