Lonely Planet Writer

Saudi Arabia wants to relax its strict religious laws in a bid to attract tourists

One of the strictest governments in the world is taking a small step towards opening up the country as a tourist destination. Saudi Arabia announced earlier this week it plans to create a beach resort where many of its strict religious laws don’t apply.

Sea view at Jiddah
Saudi Arabia boasts spectacular beaches but few westerners get to enjoy them. Image by Ashraf Salah Eldin / EyeEm

The new resort will span more than 200 miles through 50 islands off the western coast, with plenty of beaches for tourists to relax in. The area – named the Red Sea Project – will operate as a semi-autonomous region, with no visas and under separate laws from the rest of the country.

While no specific regulations have been announced yet, in a statement, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund said it “will be governed by laws on par with international standards,” meaning it is likely visitors will be exempt from their strict dress code, gender segregation or restrictive guardianship rules where men can dictate the life decisions of their female relatives. Alcohol may also be served in the area.

Camels in Saudi Arabian desert.
Saudi Arabia isn’t known as a tourist hotspot but that could change. Image by Faisal Aljuhani/500px

The government has promised the project will be eco-friendly and sustainable, encompassing protected coral reefs, mangroves, dormant volcanoes and a nature reserve full of rare wildlife like Arabian leopards, wolves and wildcats. The ancient ruins of Mada’in Saleh – Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site – will also be nearby and there’ll be options for diving, parachuting, trekking and rock climbing.

The crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is believed to be one of the driving forces behind this new venture, as a means of diversifying the country’s tourism revenue. It will also be seen by some as a softening of Saudi Arabia’s conservative religious laws, which have seen some slow degree of change in recent years.

The Red Sea Project resort is due to begin construction in 2019 with a projected completion date of 2022.