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Why are luxury hotels racing to open Saudi Arabia?

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President Biden is not the only one to visit Saudi Arabia: he is followed by swarms of tourists.

But you’ll be forgiven if you haven’t yet booked the desert kingdom for your next vacation. The assassination of Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi in 2018 and a lifetime of draconian religious surveillance that kept women almost confined to their homes meant that theocratic Arabia was not an acceptable destination for all but the most intrepid non-Muslim adventurers.

In fact, Saudi Arabia didn’t even offer a tourist visa until September 2019, when the Gulf nation announced that visitors from 49 countries could enter for a fee of just $117 at the airport. Months later, COVID arrived, overshadowing what would otherwise have been a surprising announcement for intrepid travelers.

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Around the same time, Saudi quietly neutralized the powers of its tyrannizing religious police, known for harassing women, stifling free speech and hanging around to make sure no one was having fun. Without much ado, women began to drive, movie theaters opened, music could be heard in the audience, and for the first time headscarves were removed.

In 2019, a massive music festival, dubbed MDLBeast, debuted. Thousands of 20-somethings from around the world arrived decked out in rave gear for a lineup ripped off of Miami’s Ultra (think Armin van Buuren, David Guetta, Deadmau5, Tiësto and Steve Aoki) at a venue that looks like Burning Man. The same year , Mariah Carey became the first to perform to a mixed audience in Saudi Arabia.

The welcome liberalization of Saudi society is just one part of a $1 trillion push to build a global tourism economy and turn the oil-dependent nation into the world’s playground. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman hopes to attract some 100 million visitors by 2030 (in 2019, he drew just 17.5 million international visitors, according to the World Tourism Organization), which would make Arabia one of the most visited countries in the world. of the world.

Attracting more tourists than most European nations to what remains a staid, overbearing, and at times unnerving place sounds far-fetched, but the infrastructure that will eventually turn Saudi Arabia into a dozen Dubais is almost here. Love or hate Arabia, soon you won’t be able to ignore it.

Most significantly, the first phase of Riyadh’s $50.6 billion Diriyah Gate development will open this fall.

Saudi Arabia plans to nearly double the population of its capital city by 2030 (including adding millions of expats). This 370-acre project, about 13 times the size of Hudson Yards, will be the cornerstone of that effort, drawing some 25 million visitors a year.

Old will meet new in the upcoming Diriyah Gate project.
Old will meet new in the upcoming Diriyah Gate project.
Diriyah gate project
Built to resemble the original Saudi Arabian style and building materials, the new district is attracting plenty of luxury inns.
Built to resemble original Saudi Arabian style and building materials, the new district is attracting plenty of luxury inns.
Diriyah gate project
It will be a must see for visitors coming to an otherwise hodgepodge Riad.
It will be a must see for visitors coming to an otherwise hodgepodge Riad.
Diriyah gate project
Public squares will lead to hotels, shops, fine dining restaurants and even an opera house.
Public squares will lead to hotels, shops, fine dining restaurants and even an opera house.
Diriyah gate project

Spearheaded by New York hotelier extraordinaire and Martin Scorsese double Jerry Inzerillo, the project is a city from scratch within a city that will include dozens of hotels, tens of thousands of new apartments, a university, subways, a opera house, four Michelin-starred restaurants, an untold number of palm trees, and a vast shopping district modeled on the Champs-Elysées, all completed by 2026. The first phase opens this fall around the restored ruins of the UNESCO World Heritage site, At-Turaif, the original home of the Saudi royal family and the country’s first capital until it was sacked by the Ottomans in 1818.

Baccarat, Orient Express, Raffles, Park Hyatt, Ritz-Carlton, Rosewood, Four Seasons and Six Senses are just a few of the top Western staples opening in the new district.

Inzerillo, known for developing the One&Only brand and Atlantis Resorts, as well as opening iconic hotels like the Delano in Miami Beach, isn’t the only piece of New York that has landed in unlikely Riyadh.

    At-Turaif, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was the original home of the Saudi royal family.
At-Turaif, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was the original home of the Saudi royal family.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

The sprawling city is finally attracting popular spots like Cipriani (where the maître d’ sports a New York accent) and two David Burke restaurants, to an upcoming 23-story, glass-paneled Nobu Hotel due to open next year. The Four Seasons hotel in the city’s iconic bottle-opener-shaped Kingdom Tower has long been the city’s best, but for next year it will compete with a St. Regis, a luxurious JW Marriott, a luxury Fairmont brand and Radisson Mansard.

Like many luxury hotels familiar to Manhattanites, they are opening outside of Riyadh.

During the first phase of the ambitious Red Sea Development project, a sprawling Grand Hyatt resort will open.
During the first phase of the ambitious Red Sea Development project, a sprawling Grand Hyatt resort will open.
Red Sea Development
A luxurious St. Regis will open on the Red Sea in 2023.
A luxurious St. Regis will open on the Red Sea in 2023.
Red Sea Development
Ian Schrager is collaborating with Marriott to bring an Edition hotel to the Red Sea.
Ian Schrager is collaborating with Marriott to bring an Edition hotel to the Red Sea.
Red Sea Development
Raffles will also open an eco-resort on an archipelago of more than 90 islands in the Red Sea.
Raffles will also open an eco-resort on an archipelago of more than 90 islands in the Red Sea.
Red Sea Development

The ecology-focused Red Sea project will bring 16 new hotels to an 11,000-square-mile tourist archipelago in the coming years, with a new airport opening in early 2023. A host of luxury hotels will grace the project. , including a 430-room hotel. The Grand Hyatt hotel on Shaura Island (the center of the project, which will eventually include a marina and an 18-hole championship golf course), a Raffles resort designed by Foster + Partners and focused on nature, as well as a St. Regis and a complex EDITION.

A wellness-focused luxury brand Six Senses opens into a stunning desert landscape.
A wellness-focused luxury brand Six Senses opens into a stunning desert landscape.
Red Sea Development

In the desert along the ancient frankincense trade route, Six Senses will open its Southern Dunes resort in 2023. The 73-key boutique resort is also designed by Foster + Partners.

In the coastal city of Jeddah, where Justin Bieber performed last year and an annual Formula 1 race fills the city with celebrities like A$AP Rocky, Will.i.am and Gordon Ramsay, 9,000 new luxury hotel rooms are in road. Notably, a new Shangri-La opened in February.

Shangri-La will open a 220-room hotel in Jeddah.
Shangri-La will open a 220-room hotel in Jeddah.
Courtesy of Shangri-La

Meanwhile, there are now four daily flights between Dubai and the historic city of Al-‘Ula, which is likely to be the real center of Saudi Arabia’s tourism push.

A larger-scale UNESCO and archaeological site, many times larger than Jordan’s Petra, Al-‘Ula is on display with dozens of ancient Nabataean tombs carved into the sandstone along a massive desert canyon nearly 200 miles north of Medina. Strikingly beautiful and completely non-commercial, Al-‘Ula is transforming into the wellness capital of Saudi Arabia and the “Eat, Pray, Love” set is already flocking to do yoga under the ancient sandstone monoliths. The Habitas and Banyan Tree hotels will open there this October.

Ancient sandstone tombs punctuate the stunning desert landscape at Al-'Ula, currently the biggest draw in Saudi Arabia.
Ancient sandstone tombs punctuate the stunning desert landscape at Al-‘Ula, currently the biggest draw in Saudi Arabia.
christopher cameron

Concerts with singers like Enrique Iglesias at the Maraya—the world’s largest mirrored building, which seems to disappear into the evocative mountain landscape—and celebrity-studded events like this year’s Dolce & Gabbana fashion show have made Al- ‘Ula in the first place every new visitor must see in what is still a very under construction Saudi Arabia.

Yet despite what appears to be a push to attract a panoply of luxury inns, Saudi Arabia won’t be the first choice of record for Mr. and Mrs. America for some time yet. The specter of geopolitics and a barrage of negative headlines take care of that.

But that doesn’t have hospitality investors worried.

“Saudi has a secret weapon when it comes to tourism,” a Saudi insider who asked to remain anonymous told The Post. “There are almost 2 billion Muslims in the world and all of them have a religious obligation to visit Mecca. All the kingdom has to do is turn on the tap and let the people flow.”

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