Saudi Arabia has opened its doors to tourists, announcing huge projects planned to be launched in a short period of time, but the wealthy kingdom faces a major challenge is the speed of the development of human resources, according to the head of one of the largest tourism projects in Saudi Arabia.

The development of the tourism sector is one of the most important foundations of Vision 2030, an ambitious economic plan put forward by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to diversify the largest Arab economy and stop its dependence on oil, as well as preparing for the post-crude phase.

Saudi Arabia, which has a population of 32.5 million and has been closed for a long time, began in September issuing immediate tourist visas to citizens of about 50 countries, mostly European, after the visas were granted to businessmen and pilgrims coming to Mecca and Medina.

"The challenges will be linked to the issue of investing in people and training the labor we need for the future," Red Sea chief executive John Pagano told AFP on the second day of the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh on Wednesday.

"A nationwide initiative is needed to train tourism workers," he said.

In 2017, Saudi Arabia announced the launch of a massive tourism project aimed at transforming dozens of islands and a range of mountain sites on the Red Sea coast into luxury resorts.

The project extends 180 km between the cities of Umluj and Al Wajh on the west coast of the Kingdom, with the Public Investment Fund to finance the project before opening the space for foreign investors.

Construction began in the third quarter of 2019 in an initial phase, during which the airport is being expanded, and luxury hotels and houses are being built. They are expected to be completed in the third quarter of 2022.

Pagano announced that Saudi Arabia aspires to start receiving tourists in the project within two years. "In 2022 we will welcome the first tourists," he said.

Pagano said the best way to meet the challenge of building human and physical infrastructure from almost zero is "to open the doors of the country, to introduce people to what is going on here; the country is going through a period of great change.

Saudi Arabia launched tourism project aimed at turning islands and coastal areas into tourist resorts (Reuters)

Hotels and Resorts
Since becoming the crown prince in 2017, Saudi Arabia has witnessed a social change campaign that included allowing women to drive, opening cinemas, holding Western and Arab concerts, and unprecedented entertainment seasons in the conservative kingdom.

But these changes have also been accompanied by a crackdown on critics and dissidents, raising fears by investors, especially following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at his country's consulate in Istanbul in 2018 by Saudi agents.

He wrote on the site of the Red Sea project that the company that manages it is currently working on a list of investors and partners willing to work to achieve the objectives of the project.

The project, which includes a "nature reserve to explore the diversity of flora and fauna in the region", is one of several major projects, most notably the Neum area launched by Prince Mohammed in the first versions of the Investment Forum in 2017, pledging to attract $ 500 billion in investments for the project.

The first phase of the Red Sea project includes the construction of 14 luxury hotels on five islands, as well as a number of resorts in nearby mountains.

As Saudi Arabia opens its doors to foreign tourists, it aspires to increase household spending on entertainment and give Saudis the option of enjoying events previously available only in nearby countries, including the UAE.

Under Islamic law, alcohol consumption is banned in the kingdom, which is one of the most conservative countries.

However, the authorities have recently tried to amend some laws in line with the new tourist orientation, including allowing foreign tourists to stay in their hotels without the need for a document proving the family relationship, including marriage.

Pagano said Saudi Arabia was seeking to attract 100 million tourists by 2030, so it needed about a million tourism workers.