The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has announced it plans to turn a huge part of its pristine Red Sea coastline into a semi-autonomous luxury beach resort.
The 50 islands and 180km (110 miles) stretch of coastline – amounting to an area the size of Belgium – will be developed to home luxury hotels and other necessary infrastructure which will exist under laws “on par with international standards” in an effort to draw tourists to the country, the government said Tuesday.
The plans are part of“Vision 2030”, Saudi Arabia’s long-term blueprint for weaning itself off its reliance on oil revenue. It involves investments to the tune of $20m (£15.6m) – including a shot in the arm for the kingdom’s nascent tourism industry.
While 18 million people visited Saudi Arabia from abroad in 2016, almost all foreigners came on pilgrimage to Mecca, rather than to spend time and money soaking up the country’s other sights.
Although the Kingdom is home to many archaeological sites, pristine beaches and excellent diving, it is not a holiday destination like Egypt’s Red Sea resorts or the city of Petra in Jordan. It currently does not offer tourist visas, making visiting difficult.
Conservative social rules, a lack of alcohol and restrictive dress codes coupled with blazing desert heat aren’t the usual ingredients Western holidaymakers look for.
Forms of recreation such as theatre and cinemas are banned, and despite tentative efforts at reform, Saudi Arabia is still widely criticised for its institutionalised discrimination against women.
It is not clear whether western women – or local women – will be allowed to don bikinis or other clothing which does not fit the kingdom’s strict dress codes while visiting the resorts, or travel without the presence of a male guardian.
The Kingdom’s authorities say the new tourist zone will not necessarily be subject to the laws in place in the rest of the country, although there are no details on how the semi-autonomous area will function yet.
The government is working on introducing tourist visas to make it easier for foreigners to visit. It is hoped one million people a year – a combined domestic and international total – will stay at the new Red Sea destinations by 2035.
Construction at the Red Sea site will begin in autumn 2019 and be completed by the end of 2022, state news agency SPA said. The Kingdom’s Public Investment Fund will provide the initial funding before international bodies are invited to invest.
Up to 35,000 jobs will be created by the project, which is eventually projected to generate 15 billion riyals (£3bn) a year.