SAUDI ARABIA: The ultra-conservative kingdom of Saudi Arabia has announced the construction of a luxury resort on the Red Sea where women will be allowed to wear bikinis instead of having to fully cover their bodies.
Experts believe the ambitious move initiated by the new heir to the Saudi throne, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is another attempt to modernize the oil and religious tourism dependent economy.
The Red Sea project will unlock the potential of 125 miles of spectacular coastline and 50 reef-fringed islands with the development of hotels and luxury residences in a designated tourist zone. Construction, including a new airport, is set to begin in 2019.
The scheme is part of the government’s Vision 2030 project, spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which is designed to wean the Saudi economy off a dependence on falling oil revenues.
“The Red Sea project will be a luxury resort destination situated across the islands of a lagoon and steeped in nature and culture,” said Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF).
“It will set new standards for sustainable development and bring about the next generation of luxury travel to put Saudi Arabia on the international tourism map.”
The first phase of the project is set to be completed by 2022, with visitors numbering about one million a year by 2035, according to a statement.
Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast faces Egypt, which has seen visitors to its beach resorts decline sharply following a number of terrorist attacks in recent years.
The Saudi statement said the project “will be an extremely safe and secure environment that will ensure the protection of all visitors in accordance with the highest international best practice.”
According to the Saudi Press Agency, the PIF will inject the initial capital while seeking to attract the partnerships of leading names in international tourism and hospitality sectors.
Prince Mohammed is the son of King Salman and is keen to modernize Saudi while retaining its religious and cultural heritage
Women face extreme restrictions under Saudi laws, including not being able to drive or travel without the permission of a male relative. Women are also expected to cover their bodies in public, making bikinis traditionally unacceptable.
But the government said that the resort will be “governed by laws on par with international standards.” The resort will cover 50 islands and is expected to attract tourists from across the globe amid relaxed visa restrictions.
Baeshen, a Saudi national and socioeconomic strategist, thinks the resort will open the kingdom more to domestic, regional and international tourists. “Saudi Arabia already has a strong brand in religious tourism. This is a broader effort to diversify as well as augment its religious foot traffic to include leisure tourism as well,” Fatimah said.
Saudi Arabia faces immense criticism from women rights groups for imposing a strict dress code.
However, nothing hints that rules for Saudi women will be relaxed in the near future. However, Prince Mohammed’s vision 2030 might, down the road, allow for more flexibility in women’s dress code. With such rigid rules currently, it is hard to expect quick and radical changes to take place.