latest on ultraluxe tourism project in Saudi Arabia

Jeri Clausing

As improbable as it may seem, Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince is
moving aggressively with plans for the world’s next ultra-luxurious
tourism destination, in one of the world’s few remaining undiscovered
and untouched marine wonderlands.

The kingdom’s Red Sea project this
week said it has enlisted 12 world leaders in business, tourism,
environmental sustainability and conservation to advise on the project,
which aims 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 marine conservation pioneer
Jacques Cousteau and founder and president of EarthEcho International;
tech pioneer Steve Case, who founded American Online; Sven-Olof
Lindblad, CEO of Lindblad Expeditions; Frits van Paasschen, former CEO
of Starwood Hotels & Resorts; and Six Senses founder Sonu
Shivdasani.

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

“Utilizing this group of advisers to guide The Red
Sea Development Company is crucial to creating a world-class project of
this scale,” said project CEO John Pagano. “The collective expertise of
this impressive group will help us to exceed the inspirational goals set
for the tourism sector in Vision 2030.”

Indeed, it’s an
improbable and lofty goal for a country that most Westerners generally
know mostly for its oil and its abysmal record on women’s and human
rights.

While the kingdom has a substantial luxury infrastructure
already in place with brands like Ritz-Carlton and Fairmont developed
for wealthy Arabs and business travelers, it’s also a country that has
held little draw or appetite for welcoming Western tourists. Alcohol is
strictly forbidden. Tourist visas are restricted to tightly controlled
tours, and the government can be still quite unpredictable and far from
transparent.

Late last year, for instance, Crown Prince Muhammad bin
Salman 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 anti-corruption
crackdown.

But as Branson wrote after his first visit to the Red Sea Project site last year, times are changing.

His
visit coincided with the kingdom’s announcement of plans to lift its
ban on women driving, an act Branson described at the time as one “of
many incremental reforms driven by Saudi Arabia’s young and charismatic
crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, who, with his father, is committed to
moving his country into the modern world and bringing its citizens with
him.”

Women, still mostly cloaked in their long black abayas, are
indeed now driving. But the country has a long way to go to lure
western, and particularly American, travelers.

That said, the area
The Red Sea Project seeks to develop is a rare treasure that promises to
be an exciting destination that meets the growing  demands of today’s
luxury traveler for authentic, undiscovered destinations.

With the first phase scheduled to open in 2022, it certainly will be an interesting project to watch. 

Correction: This Insight was updated to correct the relationship between Cousteaus: Philippe Cousteau Jr. is Jacques Cousteau’s grandson.

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