RIYADH – Virgin airlines founder Richard Branson will invest in a massive project that aims to turn 50 Saudi Arabian islands into luxury tourism destinations, the Saudi government recently announced.
In August, Saudi Arabia unveiled the new tourism project spanning more than 100 miles of its Red Sea coastline as part of continued efforts to boost the economy and international standing of the Middle Eastern country.
Branson is the first international investor to commit to the project, Saudi Arabia’s information ministry said, in what officials called “a clear sign that Saudi Arabia is opening its doors to international tourism”.
Branson also visited the tombs at Madain Saleh – an UNESCO World Heritage site located near a string of new hotels – in a trip to the Gulf kingdom that appears to be aimed at attracting further international attention, both investment and tourism.
“This is an incredibly exciting time in the country’s history and I’ve always felt that there’s nothing like getting a firsthand impression,” Branson said in a statement released by the information ministry.
On August 1, Prince Mohammed bin Salman unveiled plans for a luxury Red Sea resort where special laws will allow women to wear bikinis instead of covering up their skin.
Construction is set to begin in 2019 and the first phase of the project will be completed by 2022, according to the announcement. It hopes to host a million visitors a year by 2035.
The Red Sea project is part of Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 – a plan to diversify the Saudi economy and wean it off its dependence on oil.
The mammoth development, which exceeds the size of Belgium, is being backed by the country’s sovereign wealth fund and is set to create up to 35,000 jobs and add up to $4 billion to the economy each year once completed.
Saudi Arabia has Islam’s most sacred places – Holy Ka’aba and Masjid al-Nabvi (PBUH) – which make it the religious centre for over 1.6 billion Muslims.