Saudi Arabia Wants Your Next Vacation

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Saudi Arabia Wants Your Next Vacation

AL-UYAYNAH, Saudi Arabia — In a makeshift camp under a starry sky, Ghazi Al-Anazi talked about his experience in the fledgling Saudi tourist business. A decade ago, barely in his 20s, he started taking British business associates of his brother to see the wind-carved hills of the Saudi desert.

Now 31, he has a small fleet of S.U.V.s, nearly a dozen employees and a self-taught ability to cater to the whims of visitors from many nations.

“I know what they want to do, and what I need to do about it,” he said, ladling out a dinner of barbecued chicken and Middle Eastern salads to a couple of dozen tourists from France, Ukraine, Malaysia and the United States.

The move toward tourism was devised by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s 34-year-old chief policymaker, whose Vision 2030 program seeks to diversify the economy, draw in more outside investment and expand the private sector.

Prince Mohammed chairs the Red Sea Development Company as well as the Al-Ula commission. John Pagano, Red Sea’s chief executive, said the prince knew the area “intimately” from excursions on his yacht.

On one occasion, the prince told the developers to think again about putting a resort on a certain island because the water surrounding it is not turquoise enough.

“We never made that mistake again, “ said Mr. Pagano, a former senior executive at London’s Canary Wharf development.

These projects are the size of small countries, and the prince is taking advantage of their scale and sparse populations to plan distinctive communities. The Red Sea development, for instance, will not be connected to the national electric grid and will rely completely on renewable energy like wind and solar, according to Mr. Pagano, who is a Canadian citizen.

Saudi Arabia’s conservative social mores will also be less in evidence, the developers say. The travel industry anticipates that alcoholic beverages, which are prohibited in Saudi Arabia, may eventually be sold in these new areas just as they are in Dubai, the Persian Gulf travel and business hub, whose mix of luxury and modernism appears to influence the prince’s thinking.

Mr. Pagano said he was not counting on the availability of alcohol. He did say that “what you typically see in the West” is likely to be permitted at Red Sea resorts. In other words, alcohol aside, travelers will be able to do as they please — for example, women will be able to sunbathe in bikinis.

Both the Red Sea and Al-Ula projects aspire to attract wealthy, ecology-minded tourists willing to pay a premium for a novel and relatively unspoiled destination. Some travel analysts say this approach may pay dividends.

“This planet is running out of places to go,” said Philip Wooller, Middle East director for the travel research firm STR.

Aman Resorts, a Swiss-based hotel group that caters to the wealthy and celebrities, is setting up three establishments in Al-Ula, with a plan to open in 2023. “There is a huge amount of culture to be discovered and explored, and that is exactly what our guests want to do,” said Anna Nash, a spokeswoman for the company.

“Saudi Arabia won’t be an easy sell for a lot of tourists,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel consultant at Atmosphere Research in San Francisco. While Saudi Arabia might appeal to travelers who consider themselves explorers, he said, the kingdom has a “big cloud hanging over” its reputation because of the Khashoggi killing and because women are not treated as fully equal to men.

Still, the Saudis are trying hard to buff up their image. Arriving in Riyadh for business meetings, Carl de Stefanis, a New York venture capitalist, and his son, Erik, visited a welcome kiosk at the airport and were surprised to be treated to a tour of the city, a tasty dinner, and gifts including white Saudi robes and checkered head cloths.

“Just about everyone we met cared earnestly that we were enjoying ourselves,” Mr. de Stefanis said.

And for Saudi tourism entrepreneurs, it seems like a new day. For instance, Madawi Bander Al Saud says her company, The Traveling Panther, is preparing customized tours of the kingdom for clients from Japan, Mexico and Italy.

“For years we have been showing them pictures,” she said. “Now they get to come.”

Alan Rappeport and Tasneem Alsultan contributed reporting from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.