President Biden isn’t the only one visiting Saudi Arabia — he’s being followed by swarms of tourists.
But you’ll be forgiven for not having booked the desert kingdom for your next holiday yet. The 2018 murder of Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi and a lifetime of draconian religious policing that kept women nearly homebound, meant that theocratic Saudi wasn’t a palatable destination to all but the most intrepid non-Muslim adventurers.
In fact, Saudi didn’t even offer a tourism 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 struck — overshadowing what would have otherwise been an eyebrow-raising announcement for intrepid travelers.
Around the same time, Saudi quietly neutered the powers of its tyrannizing religious police, known for harassing women, stifling free expression and skulking around to ensure that no one ever had any fun. Without much ado, women began to drive, movie theaters opened, music could be heard in public and head scarves were pulled back for the first time.
In 2019, a massive music festival, dubbed the MDLBeast, debuted. Thousands of twentysomethings from around the world arrived decked out in rave gear for a line up cribbed from 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 before a mixed-gender audience in Saudi.
The welcome liberalization of Saudi society is just a piece 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, it attracted just 17.5 million international visitors, according to the World Tourism Organization), which would make Saudi one of the most visited countries on earth.
Attracting more tourists than most European nations to what remains a sober, authoritarian and at times puzzling place sounds far-fetched, but the infrastructure that will eventually turn Saudi into a dozen Dubais is almost here. Love or hate Saudi, you soon won’t be able to ignore it.
Most significantly, the first phase of the $50.6 billion Diriyah Gate development in Riyadh will debut this fall.
Saudi plans to nearly double the population of its capital city by 2030 (including the addition of millions of expats). This 370-acre project — some 13 times the size of Hudson Yards — will be a cornerstone of that effort, drawing an estimated 25 million visitors a year.
Headed by New York hotelier extraordinaire and Martin Scorsese doppelganger, Jerry Inzerillo, the project is a ground-up city within a city that will include dozens of hotels, tens of thousands of new apartments, a university, subways, an opera house, four Michelin-starred restaurants, untold numbers of palm trees and a vast shopping district modeled on the Champs-Élysées — 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 upscale 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 NYC to have landed in unlikely Riyadh.
The sprawling city is finally attracting hot spots like Cipriani (where the maître d’ sports a New York accent) and two David Burke restaurants, to a forthcoming, 23-story, glass-paneled Nobu Hotel opening next year. The Four Seasons hotel in the city’s iconic bottler opener-shaped Kingdom Tower has long been the best in the city, but by next year it will compete with a St. Regis, a ritzy JW Marriott, a Fairmont and Radisson’s luxury Mansard brand.
Just as many luxury hotels familiar to jetsetting Manhattanites are opening outside Riyadh.
The eco-focused Red Sea project will bring 16 new hotels to a 11,000-square-mile resort archipelago in the coming years, with a new airport opening in early 2023. A slew of haute hotels will polkadot the project, including a 430-room Grand Hyatt hotel on Shaura Island (the project’s hub, which will eventually include a marina and an 18-hole championship golf course), a Foster + Partners-designed, nature-focused Raffles resort, as well as a St. Regis and an EDITION resort.
In the desert, along the ancient incense trade route, Six Senses is opening its Southern Dunes resort in 2023. The boutique, 73-key resort is also designed by Foster + Partners.
In the seaside city of Jeddah — where Justin Bieber performed last year and an annual Formula 1 race packs the city with celebrities like A$AP Rocky, Will.i.am and Gordon Ramsay — 9,000 new luxury hotel rooms are on their way. Most notably, a new Shangri-La opened in February.
Meanwhile, four flights a day are now running between Dubai and the historic city of Al-‘Ula, which will likely be the true hub of Saudi’s tourism push.
A larger scale archeological and UNESCO site many times larger than Jordan’s Petra, Al-‘Ula shows off with dozens of ancient Nabatean tombs carved into the sandstone throughout a massive dessert canyon nearly 200 miles north of Medina. Stunningly beautiful and utterly uncommercialized, Al-‘Ula is being transformed into Saudi’s wellness capital and the “Eat, Pray, Love” set are already flocking in to do yoga beneath ancient sandstone monoliths. Habitas and Banyan Tree hotels are opening there this October.
Concerts with singers like Enrique Iglesias in the Maraya — the world’s largest mirrored building, which seems to disappear into the evocative mountain landscape — and celeb-filled events like this year’s Dolce & Gabbana fashion show have made Al-‘Ula the first place every new visitor should see in what remains a very under-construction Saudi Arabia.
However, despite what appears to be a drive to attract a panoply of luxury inns, Saudi isn’t going to be a first check-in choice for Mr. and Mrs. America for some time yet. The specter of geo-politics and a barrage of negative headlines see to 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 the tap and let the people flow.”