Fish swim near coral reefs off the Obhor coast, 30 kms north of the Red Sea city of Jeddah, on June 2, 2008. AFP PHOTO/HASSAN AMMAR (Photo credit should read HASSAN AMMAR/AFP/Getty Images)

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Saudi Arabia to develop luxury beach resorts

Work on Red Sea project to begin in 2019

Tourists could see dress codes relaxed

CNN  — 

Picture luxury beach destinations and you probably conjure dreamy images of the Maldives or the Seychelles, but Saudi Arabia? Not so much.

But that could change with an ambitious plan to develop part of Saudi Arabia’s west coast into a Red Sea resort.

The Red Sea project will unlock the potential of 125 miles of spectacular coastline and 50 reef-fringed islands with the development of hotels and luxury residences in a designated tourist zone.

Construction, including a new airport, is set to begin in 2019, while the resort will be “governed by laws on par with international standards,” said the government.

Bikinis on the beach?

That could mean women will be allowed to sunbathe and swim wearing bikinis, hitherto unheard of in the conservative kingdom where women are expected to cover their skin with robe-like dresses known as “abayas.”

Under Saudi’s repressive laws, women are forbidden to drive and are unable to travel abroad without a male guardian’s permission.

The scheme is part of the government’s Vision 2030 project, spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which is designed to wean the Saudi economy off a dependence on falling oil revenues.

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“The Red Sea project will be a luxury resort destination situated across the islands of a lagoon and steeped in nature and culture,” said Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF).

“It will set new standards for sustainable development and bring about the next generation of luxury travel to put Saudi Arabia on the international tourism map.”

Maldives-style luxury beach resorts could be on their way to Saudi Arabia.

Eased restrictions in tourist zone

Restrictions on visitor visas will be eased in the tourist zone, although it is unclear if Saudi’s ban on alcohol will still apply.

The first phase of the project is set to be completed by 2022, with visitors numbering about one million a year by 2035, according to a statement.

Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast faces Egypt, which has seen visitors to its beach resorts decline sharply following a number of terrorist attacks in recent years.

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The Saudi statement said the project “will be an extremely safe and secure environment that will ensure the protection of all visitors in accordance with the highest international best practice.”

According to the Saudi Press Agency, the PIF will inject the initial capital while seeking to attract the partnerships of leading names in international tourism and hospitality sectors.

Prince Mohammed is the son of King Salman and is keen to modernize Saudi while retaining its religious and cultural heritage.