Saudi Arabia has announced a new airline to bring in tourists as it tries to attract 100 million visitors to the kingdom by 2030
- Saudi Arabia announced a new airline that will connect its capital city to over 100 destinations worldwide.
- Riyadh Air will help diversify the kingdom's economy and make it less dependent on oil revenue.
Saudi Arabia is not historically known for its beach resorts and rolling landscapes, but the country is hoping to win over global tourists with reformed social laws and a new way to access the kingdom.
On Sunday, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced Riyadh Air — a new national airline that will connect Saudi Arabia to over 100 destinations across the globe by 2030. Former Etihad Airways CEO Tony Douglas was appointed CEO of the company, which is wholly owned by the country's Public Investment Fund.
Riyadh Air will be in addition to Saudia — the nation's current flag airline based in Jeddah — and will have its hub at Riyadh's King Salman International Airport. The space is currently being reimagined as a "mega-airport" with upgraded facilities and infrastructure.
"The new national carrier will leverage Saudi Arabia's strategic geographic location between the three continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe, enabling Riyadh to become a gateway to the world and a global destination for transportation, trade, and tourism," the country said in a press release.
According to its website, Riyadh Air, which is expected to generate $20 billion in "non-oil GDP growth" and create over 200,000 jobs, is hiring pilots for a Boeing fleet. The Wall Street Journal reported the aircraft deal could be worth $35 billion.
The news comes as the Middle East's biggest country hopes to attract some 100 million tourists by 2030 by reinventing itself with modern laws and investing over $800 billion into new cities and infrastructure.
Saudi Arabia's poor global image as a tourism destination was due in part to its historically harsh social rules which were enforced by the mutawa, religious police who could arrest citizens for simply playing music or wearing heavy makeup, Politico reports.
However, the country began to change in 2017 when Mohamed bin Salman took power and created "Saudia Vision 2030," a campaign to diversify the nation's economy, become less dependent on oil revenue, and develop public services like education, health, and tourism.
As part of his commitment, Salman slashed the power of the mutawa, opened movie theaters, and reformed social laws, like giving women more work opportunities and the ability to get a driver's license.
But cultural clashes may deter tourists from entering Saudi Arabia's newly opened doors. Up until 2019, foreigners — including US citizens — couldn't get visas to enter the nation for tourism, and many watched as the nation executed Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 — a move US intelligence agencies determined was approved by the Crown Prince himself.
Moreover, alcohol is illegal and the kingdom still outlaws homosexuality, making it difficult for some visitors unfamiliar with Shariah (Islamic) law to visit without risking financial penalty or imprisonment.
Things like dabbing, wearing shorts, or playing loud music during prayer times can get tourists into trouble.
However, some experts say travelers should look at the bigger picture before blacklisting Saudi Arabia as a leisure destination, and consider the opportunity as a learning experience.
"I strongly believe it is possible to travel responsibly in destinations with poor ethical records," Justin Francis, CEO of activist travel company Responsible Travel, told Condé Nest Traveler. "Frankly, it would be hard to name a single destination with a clean record on the environment, animal welfare, and human rights."
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