Saudi Arabia’s al-Diriyah Gate project will help catapult the kingdom into the tourist destination of the world, CEO of the al-Diriyah Gate Development Authority Jerry Inzerillo tells Al Arabiya English.
The multi-billion dollar project will see a host of developments this year with the launch of its first neighborhood district - an entertainment and dining hub comprising of dozens of new restaurants - and the opening of the At-Turaif UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In an exclusive interview with Al Arabiya English, Inzerillo said the mega-project is still meeting its building targets despite the COVID-19 pandemic, with the site expected to be “the jewel in Saudi Arabia’s crown” once completed.
“When COVID-19 closed things down, we still planned to hit all our targets we are very pleased in 2020 we were able to keep the al-Diriyah 67-kilometer masterplan on time and on budget for the completion of its first phase in 2024,” said Inzerillo.
“We open our first district - Al Bujairi District – at the end of the year in December with 22 new restaurants - local restaurants by great Saudi entrepreneurs and famous international restaurants.”
The Al Bujairi District will be the first major part of the huge development to be open to the public. An F&B precinct steeped in history, it will feature a street market, a gallery, plaza, an amphitheater, and the At-Turaif visitor center – the entry point for tourists embarking on an exploration of the UNESCO World Heritage Site which is also slated to open in 2021.
“This year we will be opening our first major parks – huge parks for the Saudi community and people visiting- as part of the restoration of Wadi Walk, an integral part of Bujairi.”
As the birthplace of the Kingdom, the site has a special place in the history of Saudi Arabia. As part of a huge restoration project, the palaces and buildings have been created in the traditional stone and mudbrick ‘Najdi’ architectural style.
Once the center of the House of Saud, At-Turaif was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2010 due to its oasis, its architectural and decorative style, and its distinction as an area representing a significant phase of human development, amongst other attributes.
“We are very, very fortunate, because many years ago when Saudi Arabia’s King Salman was governor of Riyadh, one thing that is still not well known about him outside the Kingdom is not just his love of history and his love of books, but there is no one that loves Al-Diriyah more,” said Inzerillo.
“When he was governor, he started the restoration of what is now known as the UNESCO– now it is in pristine condition.”
The coronavirus pandemic provided an opportunity for intensive restoration and beautification efforts, according to Inzerillo.
“We just cannot wait to open the UNESCO World Heritage Site to the public. It has been with us for 400 years, it will be with us for another 400 plus, plus, plus. So, we have a very exciting plan.”
Developing young Saudi talent
The project, aside from its tourism and cultural benefits to the kingdom, also has another key purpose, said Inzerillo. The development of young Saudi talent.
With almost 1,000 workers on the project, more than 80 per cent of those are Saudi nationals. The average age is about 31.
Welcoming tourists once again
Saudi Arabia opened the Kingdom for tourism which the issuance of tourism visas in September 2019.
“We were doing 55,000 visas a week until we had a shutdown in March for COVID-19 protocols in March,” said Inzerillo.
“The World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC) had pegged Saudi Arabia for 2020 as fastest-growing tourism country. We were very encouraged by that.”
Once completed in 2030, the Al-Diriyah Gate project will be home to 3,000 residences, 3,100 luxury hotel rooms, 100 restaurants, four huge sports and recreation venues, and five iconic plazas, including King Salman Square and the Heroes Memorial Plaza.
It will also feature 20 hotels, several world-class academies, institutions, the King Salman University, and 20 cultural attractions.
It is expected to be home to 100,000 residents and attract more than 25 million residents annually.
Its first phase – comprising of hotels, residences and the Wadi restoration – will be completed by 2024.
But the next 18 months will see a hive of activity.
The project development has also seen “several billions of dollars” already spent on key infrastructure in terms of new power, water, and sewage works in the area.
More than seven kilometers of curbs, sidewalks, and street lamps have also been constructed while teams have planted more the 22,000 trees across the mega-projects.
“Now you see tons of people walking cycling, which you never did before,” said Inzerillo. “You see hundreds of Saudi families with young children just being outdoors.”
“The fact that the Crown Prince gave us all the resources to do all this work in the community within just a very short period is incredible. We intend to fulfill the Crown Prince’s vision; of making Al Diriyah one of – if not the – greatest - cultural heritage gathering place in the world and we are well on the way to do it.”
Inzerillo said in the coming months there will be some key announcements as it aims to put Al-Diriyah Gate on the map.
Work has also begun on the 141-room Samhan Heritage Hotel which will be completed in late 2022.
The Ministry of Sport is working on announcing a gigantic world title fight in Riyadh shortly, once COVID-19 restrictions are relaxed, he added.
The Ministry also has a “backlog of hundreds of events that are ready and contracted and ready to go once COVID19 protocols are lifted and communities are safe,” said Inzerillo
“We are very excited to see what the next year or two will bring but over the next few years – up to 2024 - there will be a great number of hotels, restaurants, souks, shopping and cultural destinations, universities, museums, residences, pipping up in the first phase of the Diriyah Gate masterplans.”
Inzerillo said Al-Diriyah Gate will be a huge part of Saudi Arabia’s 2030 plan.
“Al-Diriyah Gate won’t just be one of the flagship projects of Saudi’s tourism plan – it will be THE one.
“We will be the jewel in the necklace.”
Inzerillo described Saudi Arabia as a “treasure chest from a tourism point of view.”
“Over a billion people a year travel for culture and heritage, several billion travel for sand and sea, other people travel to shop.
“In Saudi you have everything; you have culture and heritage with five UNESCO sites, you have got Al-Diriyah Gate, al-Ula, Jeddah, the largest palm groves in the world, the Red Sea, the green mountains, the Empty Quarter, the single most famous oasis in the world. This is a tourism paradise.”
Tourism, a pillar of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform strategy to reduce dependence on oil, suffered because of government measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
But domestic tourism has cushioned the blow, said Inzerillo, with reduced overseas travel giving a boost to local consumption and Saudi nations enjoying visiting places in the Kingdom that many had not visited since childhood.
“Travel restrictions by coronavirus has fueled a gigantic wave of pride, reconnection of culture and history and fueled a great nationalism within Saudi,” he said.
Inzerillo said with vaccination roll-outs set to kickstart international tourism, Saudi Arabia is likely to benefit from an influx of visitors looking to explore the Kingdom’s rich heritage.