29 FEBRUARY 2016
It’s certainly not the first destination to spring to mind when planning a beach holiday, but Saudi Arabia is preparing to develop its unspoiled islands into resorts in an attempt to boost visitor numbers.
Tourism authorities in the country have announced that 66 islands along the country’s Red Sea coast are “ready for investment”.
The Farasan Islands – between the port city of Jazan, Eritrea and Yemen – have been earmarked thanks to their clear blue seas, white sandy beaches and coral reefs.
Although basic facilities such as piers, toilets and umbrellas exist on the main three islands – Farasan, Sajid and Muharraq – authorities hope to see more development, including high-end accommodation.
Rustom Al-Kubaisi of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage told Telegraph Travel the country was hoping to attract luxury hotel developers to build “scuba diving, spa and resort facilities” on the three main islands.
“For the time being it is aimed at Saudis and expats,” Mr Kubaisi said, but Western tourists might become a target “in the future”.
Developments could be worth up to 500 million Saudi rials (£96m), with individual investments of 30-35 million, although no definite figures have been decided. Resort building should be underway within five years, Mr Kubaisi added.
Saudi Arabia has islands along both its Red Sea and Arabian Gulf coastlines. Most of them – some 1,150 – are in the Red Sea, and are surrounded by coral reefs, sandy beaches and mangroves.
The Farasan Islands are home to “rare coral reefs” and “nesting sea turtles and seabirds” can be spotted on its beaches, according to the Saudi Arabian tourist board. The archipelago is also home to an Ottoman castle, and the village of “Al Qassar”, complete with palm oasis, and mangroves, and breeding populations of Arabian gazelles.
“Thousands of people” from “different parts of the world” visited the islands for the latest “Hareed fishing festival”, which celebrates the parrot fish that congregate around the islands, according to Saudi news outlet Arab News.
The islands are accessed by two ferries that depart daily from the port city of Jizan, 50km away. There is currently one hotel, Farasan Coral Resort, on the main island. It boasts of “luxuriously furnished executive suites” and “elegant design.”
Mr Kubaisi said that scuba diving could be a large part of the Farasan Islands development, as the country was already seeing water sports fans from other parts of the Gulf visit to explore its untouched reefs along its two long coastlines.
He said women were allowed to scuba dive without restrictions and that although it was only men coming from abroad for underwater sports at present, women “in families” were welcome.
Restrictions on female travellers represent one of the disincentives around visiting Saudi Arabia.
Women must be accompanied by a male guardian when travelling. The British Foreign Office says that female visitors must be met by their sponsors on arrival or “may face delays before being allowed to enter the country or to continue on other flights.”
They are required to wear the black cloak known as an abaya and a hijab (headscarf) at all times in public.
All Britons must obtain a visa before travelling to Saudi Arabia, from an accredited visa agent, at a cost of at least £50.
Other travellers may be put off by the country’s abysmal human rights record: according to Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia carried out 158 executions last year and “authorities continued to arbitrarily arrest, try, and convict peaceful dissidents.” The country has also been criticised for its bombing campaign in Yemen, which is aimed at Houthi rebels but in which civilians have reportedly been killed.
Saudi Arabia has been attempting to bolster tourism as oil resources diminish and revenues tumble.
Prince Sultan bin Salman said this month that “national heritage” could be among the “economic alternatives” to the black gold upon which the kingdom’s wealth has been built.
“I have been emphasizing that the national heritage, namely the urban heritage, could be amongst the economic alternatives that contribute to the diversity of economic resources and job opportunities in the region. That is because “the urban heritage represents inexhaustible oil wells,” he said.
The vast majority of tourists who visit Saudi Arabia are Muslims making the pilgrimage to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. World Bank figures for 2013 – the latest year available – show 13 million tourists visited the country.
Other coastal resorts already exist in the Kingdom, which is better known for its hard line interpretation of Sunni Islam than for beach holidays. The Mövenpick group has an “exclusive for families” beach resort at Al Khobar on the Arabian Gulf coast and Le Meridien has a hotel in the “stunning seaside oasis” of the city of Al Khodar.
On land, the main attractions include the rock-cut tombs at Maiden Saleh – a caravan stopping point on the route to Petra in Jordan in the era of the Nabateans – and the Hejaz railway route.
The British Foreign Office currently deems Jizan off-limits as it is close to the border with Yemen, but there are no restrictions on travel to the Farasan Islands. British authorities make general warnings about sea vessels being targets for piracy and terrorism.