Saudi Arabia plans to turn hundreds of kilometers of untouched Red Sea coastline into a global tourism destination governed by laws “on par with international standards,” as part of its goal to transform the economy and reduce its reliance on oil.
The Red Sea project will cover 34,000 square kilometers―an area bigger than Belgium―between the cities of Umluj and Al Wajh, boasting 50 islands, beaches as well as dormant volcanoes, according to an official statement sent to Bloomberg on Tuesday. It will be developed by the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund.
One of the documents referred to the project as a “semi-autonomous” area and said it would be governed “by independent laws and a regulatory framework developed and managed by a private committee,” a sign that it will seek to ease the strict rules on tourism elsewhere in the conservative kingdom. Tourists from most nationalities will not require a visa, or will be able to obtain one online.
If successful, the Red Sea project will transform an industry that relies almost solely on millions of Muslim pilgrims visiting holy shrines in Mecca. The kingdom, which practices a strict version of Sunni Islam, bans alcohol, imposes a strict dress code and has curbs on gender mixing.
Under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s drive to overhaul the economy after the plunge in oil prices, authorities are already relaxing rules on the entertainment industry to bolster non-oil revenue. By 2020, the kingdom plans to have more than 450 clubs providing a variety of cultural activities and events. It also aims to double household spending on recreation to 6 percent.
The initial groundbreaking of the Red Sea project is expected in the third quarter of 2019 and the first phase will be completed by the fourth quarter of 2022, including “the development of hotels and luxury residential units, as well as all logistical infrastructure―including air, land, and sea transport hubs,” according to the statement.
The project will create as many as 35,000 jobs “once it’s up and running” and contribute 15 billion riyals ($4 billion) to Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product, according to the statement. The Public Investment Fund, headed by Prince Mohammed, will inject initial investments into the project and start partnerships with international companies.
Visitors will also have access to the ancient ruins at Mada’in Saleh, a relic of the same ancient civilization that built the better-known city of Petra in Jordan and the first place in Saudi Arabia to be classified as a UNESCO Heritage site.