Jeri Clausing

As the world slowly reopens to travel, Saudi Arabia, one of the newest – and arguably most unlikely – newcomers to the luxury travel scene, is stepping up its already aggressive game to position itself as a global luxury tourism powerhouse.

Although it has been barely two years since the kingdom opened its borders to vacationers, Saudi Arabia has made it clear in recent months that it not only wants to be an international travel center, but also a strong voice in global tourism policy and – development after the pandemic arenas.

The last one Global Summit of the World Travel & Tourism Council in Cancun, the Kingdom was a prime sponsor with a front stage presence.

Just weeks later, WTTC CEO Gloria Guevara left, only to announce shortly after that it was her hired as Senior Advisor to the Saudi Minister of Tourism.

Also last month, the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) announced that it was opening its first regional office for the Middle East in Riyadh. And Riyadh will also host an expanded UNWTO International Tourism Academy.

A few days later, the World Bank announced that the Kingdom had pledged $ 100 million to its Tourism Community Initiative, a collaboration between the World Bank, the Saudi Ministry of Tourism and the UNWTO to set up a global tourism trust fund.

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As a sign that the country is keen to aggressively promote its luxury offerings in the west, the luxury travel fair ILTM said Saudi Arabia will have its first – and a sizeable – presence at its regional event for North American travel agents in Mexico in September.

The moves, undoubtedly accompanied by massive financial contributions to global tourism organizations such as the UNWTO, come as the kingdom advances on some of the world’s most ambitious tourism development projects in recent years.

This includes investing billions in the development of luxury centers in the Diriyah historic site, known as the birthplace of the Saudi state, and in a vast, previously pristine stretch of the Red Sea.

A recent announcement from the Red Sea Project says it is on track to welcome visitors to green development by the end of 2022. The first phase will include 16 luxury hotels with around 3,000 rooms on five islands and two inland locations. After completion in 2030, the Red Sea Project expects 50 hotels with 8,000 hotel rooms and around 1,300 residential properties on 22 islands and six locations inland.

In addition, earlier this year, Saudi Arabia announced the creation of Cruise Saudi, a publicly funded initiative to develop ports, destinations and excursion options to attract more cruises to the Red Sea and Persian Gulf.

The investments are impressive and few countries could compete on this scale. Yet they ask the question: will Western tourists come just because they build them?

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Aside from the country’s longstanding global dislike of the country’s historic oppression of women and human rights abuses, the kingdom has yet to provide any indication that it will relax its alcohol ban, arguably a major convenience for Western luxury travelers.

Richard Branson, one of the first private investors to join the Red Sea Project, retired after the murder of Washington Post journalist and Saudi citizen Jamal Kashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Yet other big players and global tourism organizations are clearly keen to join and support Saudi Arabia’s big tourism game.

With this growing support, it can only be assumed that further changes are on the horizon to allay Western reluctance to adhere strictly to the Wahabi interpretation of Islam and the kingdom’s historical reputation as a less inviting travel destination.