JEDDAH , October 1, 2017 – In a clear sign that Saudi Arabia is opening its doors to international tourism and foreign investment, Sir Richard Branson, the global investor who founded Virgin Airlines , traveled across the Kingdom visiting some of its most spectacular sites that are primed for development in line with the country’s Vision 2030. In addition to visiting the sites, Branson has become the first international investor to commit to involvement in the Red Sea Project and nearby Al Ola/Madain Saleh, another prime site for the development of tourism, both domestic and international.
Key stopovers on Branson’s tour included the pristine coastal islands of the recently-announced Red Sea Project as well as the tombs at Madain Saleh, an UNESCO World Heritage site that is the southern outpost of the ancient Nabateans, the people who carved from stone the ancient city of Petra in Jordan.
“This is an incredibly exciting time in the country’s history and I’ve always felt that there’s nothing like getting a first-hand impression,” Branson said. “It is so exciting that this side of Saudi Arabia is starting to come to light. It will be wonderful to attract visitors to marvel at the beauty of Saudi Arabia, and get to know its people too.”
The Red Sea Project is a coastal lagoon covering some 50 untouched islands stretched along more than 150 km of unpopulated coastline. The remote area, far from any of the Kingdom’s urban centers, is set to become a destination for both local and international tourists, with rules and regulations on par with those at other popular resort areas around the world. The project will comprise exquisite luxury resorts, underwater nature reserves and dormant volcanos within an area of 34,000 km².
“I was amazed at how completely untouched the landscape is,” Branson remarked. “Standing on the islands, we could see turtles pulling themselves in and out of the water to lay their eggs, while eagle rays and dugongs swam past. Given the right protections, it could stay that way for decades to come.”
Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, will inject initial investments into the project and start partnerships with international companies to spur development of resort hotels and other amenities. Another tenet of Vision 2030 is the formation of Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy and reducing the country’s reliance on oil.
Less than 250 km from the planned resort area lies the ancient site of Madain Saleh, with its massive tombs carved into solid rock across a desert landscape marked by magnificent sculptural stone formations. At the entrance to Madain Saleh is a restored stretch of the old Hijaz railway along with a restored locomotive that TE Lawrence and his forces destroyed in World War I. The UNESCO Heritage site is a short distance from the ruins of Al Oa, an ancient town with its abandoned dwellings overlooking groves of date trees.
Branson, always a visionary, immediately recognized the possibility of combining his business interests with his personal passion for adventure and proposed bringing hot air balloons to provide visitors with a bird’s-eye view of the area’s stunning landscape.
Tourism and hospitality, one sector of the Saudi economy that Vision 2030 defines as high-growth, is a sector targeted for massive job creation and economic diversification. The Red Sea Project alone is expected to generate around 35,000 jobs while Madain Saleh/Al Ola is already the site of new hotels and support services.
Sir Richard, with his well-respected expertise in entrepreneurial ventures and a keen eye for investment potential, opens the door for more foreign tourists and investors to eye Saudi Arabia as a destination well worth their time and money.