By Stephen Kalin
RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia is targeting up to $20 billion of investments through 2035 for a planned landmark tourism destination and will hold a global investor roadshow before the end of the year, the head of the project told Reuters.
Al-Ula, the site of an ancient civilization in a remote northwestern corner of the country, is part of plans by the world’s top crude exporter to diversify its economy away from oil and open up after decades of reclusion.
Amr Madani, chief executive of the Royal Commission for al-Ula, said in an interview this week he expects targeted investments to eventually generate 35,000 jobs and contribute a combined 120 billion riyals ($32 billion) to gross domestic product over the next 17 years.
“The bulk of that in the beginning will be construction-led but at steady state it will be tourism-led,” he said. This would be alongside secondary industries like sustainable agriculture, heritage preservation and film production.
The government, along with a French cultural partnership, has already begun financing infrastructure at al-Ula, which features majestic rock-hewn tombs and 2,000-year-old stone carvings by the Nabateans, the pre-Islamic Arab people that also built Petra in neighboring Jordan.
“We’d rather inject zero from public money, but the reality is we need to kickstart the investment. So we don’t know what that number is but we’re committed to keep investing until we get to the right conditions where funds jump in,” Madani said.
Various investment vehicles will be considered, including joint ventures and long leases, he added.
Al-Ula’s development is part of a push to preserve pre-Islamic heritage sites in order to attract non-Muslim tourists, strengthen national identity and temper the austere strain of Sunni Islam that has dominated Saudi Arabia for decades.
It is also part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Sultan’s efforts to make the country an entertainment destination, with the kingdom looking to attract dozens of Western acts, including a planned Michael Jackson-inspired “Thriller” theatrical show.
The authorities eventually want to attract up to 2 million visitors annually to al-Ula, but they are starting with about 1,000 hotel rooms plus desert camps and a three month visitor season called Winter at Tantoura that just concluded its first iteration.
“We were overwhelmed, not only by those who came, but by people who saw the pictures and wanted to come,” said Madani. “There is a lot of excitement around the world.”
Plans to admit tourists to Saudi Arabia have been discussed for years but have not come to fruition due to sluggish bureaucracy and concern over conservative sentiment.
International outcry over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents last October may give some potential visitors pause, but calls for Western performers to boycott the kingdom have not caught on.
Alongside “seasonal” visas issued for Tantoura, the government has approved plans to issue electronic visas for foreign visitors to attend sporting events and concerts, but it is unclear when those will be available.
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