- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Saudi Arabia, known for religious shrines, deserts and strict religious codes, is not exactly a first-choice travel destination for Western tourists who associate “vacation” with sandy beaches, skimpy bathing suits and potent appletinis.

But the conservative oil-rich kingdom is seeking to fashion a new image with its ambitious Red Sea project, spearheaded by hard-charging Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to create a glamorous resort on the country’s Red Sea coast by 2022. The Saudi vacation area will span 13,000 square miles and offer mountains, beaches and natural islands to well-heeled regional and Western adventure-seekers.

Part of the crown prince’s effort to diversify his country’s revenue from reliance on oil riches, the campaign is anticipated to generate up to 35,000 jobs and $4 billion each year.

If Western tourists’ negative perceptions of the Muslim nation persist, though, the plan may fall flat, analysts say.

“Perceptions really dictate where we travel and why,” said tourism consultant Roger Brooks. “Westerners don’t really know Saudi Arabia, we’re afraid of it and it’s really difficult to get there.”

To attract visitors, the country’s Public Investment Fund has vaguely promised to bend Saudi Arabia’s strict social codes in the resort. The Red Sea Coast tourist area “will be governed by laws on par with international standards that will include no visa requirements for most nationalities,” the Public Investment Fund reported on its website.

Officials say construction of the resorts will begin in 2019. The first phase of development will include an airport as well as luxury hotels and housing. It is expected to be complete in 2022, the BBC reported this month. The area offers coral reefs and dormant volcanoes to explore, as well as a nature reserve with exotic fauna such as Arabian leopards and falcons.

The extent to which Saudi Arabia does bend its strict Islamic-based social codes — which include a ban on alcohol, strict dress codes for women, and a requirement that women travel with a male relative or sponsor — will factor into the resort’s appeal, analysts say.

“The perception would be that this place is so restricted, people will not have fun,” said Abraham Pizam, dean of the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida. “People have other options. Saudi Arabia is not the only country that can offer those beaches on the Red Sea.”

Saudi Arabia certainly doesn’t top lists of countries with international appeal. It ranks 63rd out of 136 countries in the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index, scoring low in categories of international openness, natural resources, and cultural resources and business travel.

In a U.S. News & World Report listing of “best countries,” Saudi Arabia ranks 79th out of 80 for adventure — reflecting its low scores for fun, scenery, climate and friendliness. It ranks 78th out of 80 in a list of “best countries to travel alone.”

“Yes, they can create [this Red Sea project],” said Thomas Lippman, a journalist and author who has written extensively on Saudi Arabia and the Middle East. “But will people go there? That’s a separate question.”

Safety worries

Safety concerns create another major hindrance, said Mr. Brooks. Women, who make 70 percent of travel decisions, especially worry about security, he said.

“When it comes to Saudi Arabia, the first thing people think is, ‘Sounds scary,’” Mr. Brooks said.

The perception isn’t groundless: The U.S. State Department has issued a travel warning for Saudi Arabia, citing 34 terrorist attacks last year as well as conflict in neighboring Yemen that has crossed Saudi Arabia’s borders.

“What’s going to keep terrorists from attacking [this resort] if you have everyone in one place?” Mr. Brooks said.

Negative perceptions will come not just from Westerners, however. Saudis may reject the proposal if they view it as far too liberal, Mr. Lippman said.

“There will be some Saudis who don’t want anything to do with this,” Mr. Lippman said. Younger Saudis, he said, may find it attractive, but whether they will be tempted by the entry-level service industry pay is a separate question.

Zubair Iqbal, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, said the announcement of the project is a way for the Saudi government to gauge its citizens’ opinions of the resort and of broader liberal trends in the country.

“It’s not clear what this resort will be like,” he said. “They want people to talk about it so they can sense how far they can go with this project.”

Its success may determine whether the country advances further toward modernization and away from conservative Islamic law, a change demanded by the younger generation of Saudis, Mr. Iqbal said.

Saudi Arabia has already proved it is able to implement looser laws in various zones, including King Abdullah University and the Aramco compound.

“They’re very pragmatic in these matters,” Mr. Zubair said, noting that Saudi Arabia has to be cautious as it balances economic concerns with a global image and strong Islamic roots.

“They can create these [areas with separate laws],” Mr. Lippman said, “but why a tourist would want to go there instead of Dubai, I don’t know.”

Not everyone is so pessimistic about Saudi Arabia’s tourism future. Adel Faramawi, an agent for Rendezvous Travel based in Falls Church, Virginia, said the nation may benefit simply because it is an undiscovered tourist destination.

“Too many people don’t understand that it’s a beautiful country,” he said, noting Saudi Arabia’s natural resources. “It’s a very safe country if you respect the religion and culture there.”

Saudi Arabia hasn’t truly opened up to tourists until the past three or four years, Mr. Faramawi said, and could do more to attract and accommodate visitors. But he said the young crown prince is working to slowly liberalize the country, a change Mr. Faramawi called a “big improvement.”

Clients express concern about the country’s safety and social codes, he said, but he assures them that he has never encountered a problem sending tourists there.

Mr. Brooks, too, said there is reason to believe Saudi Arabia will succeed as long as it alleviates security concerns and focuses on authenticity. The millennial generation, he noted, is eager to try exotic destinations where they can experience authentic cultures.

“I think Saudi Arabia is on the right path,” Mr. Brooks said. “It’s a way for Saudi Arabia to understand Western civilization and for us to understand them.”

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