No visa, no veil? Saudi Arabia may ease rules for tourists

FILE- In this Monday, Feb. 20, 2017 file photo, a boy flies a kite on the Red Sea beach near the landmark Jiddah fountain, in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is planning to build a semi-autonomous luxury travel destination along its Red Sea coast that visitors can reach without a visa. The Red Sea area, which will include diving attractions and a nature reserve, will be developed with seed capital from the country's Public Investment Fund. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

Saudi Arabia announces plans for Red Sea travel resort project where restrictions on tourists could be lifted

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Saudi Arabia plans to build a "semi-autonomous" visa-free travel destination along its northwestern Red Sea coast where restrictions on women's dress, gender segregation and other conservative norms could be waived.

The Red Sea project will include diving attractions and a nature reserve, with some areas resembling the luxury hotels, islands and lagoons of the Maldives. The Saudi Commission for Tourism did not immediately respond to an Associated Press request for more details on the rules that will govern tourists at the Red Sea resort.

The country's Public Investment Fund (PIF) said Monday it will provide the seed capital to develop the resort area, explaining that the new "semi-autonomous area will be governed by laws on par with international standards." The fund said the project will attract leading names in hotel to "bring about the next-generation of tourism in a way that will open" Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastline to tourists from around the world.

The sovereign wealth fund developing the project is headed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the young prince who in June was named heir to the throne by his father King Salman. The prince is overseeing a dramatic overhaul of the economy to lessen its dependence on oil exports for revenue.

Tourism is a key part of the prince's Vision 2030 plan. The plan aims to diversify and modernize Saudi society and the economy, and includes plans for keeping some of the Saudi money spent abroad each year in the country. It also calls for raising tourism revenues outside of the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, which Saudi Arabia oversees.

The Red Sea project aims to specifically generate 15 billion Saudi riyals ($4 billion) annually to Saudi Arabia's economy and create 35,000 jobs.

Already, the ultraconservative country has opened its doors to more entertainment in order to generate more local spending and appease the country's burgeoning youth population. The PIF is the main investor in a Six Flags theme park that is expected to be built in a new entertainment city that will be the first of its kind in the kingdom.

The fund said the Red Sea project will be built along 125 miles (200 kilometers) of coastline and is tailored toward global luxury travelers and those seeking wellness travel, a genre of tourism associated with personal well-being and health.

Among the attractions will be protected coral reefs, dormant volcanoes, a nature reserve inhabited by rare wildlife like Arabian leopards and falcons, and trips to Saudi Arabia's ancient ruins of Mada'in Saleh, classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Also on offer will be parachuting, trekking and rock climbing.

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