(Bloomberg Markets) -- Mei Wang marveled at the sandstone vistas, lush palm trees, ancient tombs and five-star resorts. These images beckoned to the 30-year-old entrepreneur as she watched Divas Hit the Road, a Chinese travel show. So she set out with her mother, flying from Guangzhou to the ancient oasis town of AlUla in Saudi Arabia.

In Arabic, AlUla means “glory,” and the kingdom ­envisions a lot for this historical region, which is the size of New Jersey. It will become one of the world’s great tourist attractions—in the words of Melanie de Souza, AlUla’s top marketing official, a destination for “luxe seekers, wanderlust nomads, intrepid voyagers and silver foxes.”

Along with developing resorts, shops, restaurants and a contemporary art museum with Paris’ Centre Pompidou, the Royal Commission for AlUla is overseeing tourist-friendly archaeological excavations of colossal tombs that date to the first century B.C.

And then there’s the new Sharaan Nature Reserve, which showcases a repopulated world of rare beasts: the wild goats, known as ibex, with their long horns curving like scimitars; the striking black-and-white oryx antelopes; fleet-footed gazelles; and, one day soon, endangered Arabian leopards. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who chairs the commission, has camped here for several winters, hosting dignitaries such as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

But on this day in March, the weather isn’t cooperating for the Wangs. A huge storm brings torrential rain, wind gusts and even hail. At the resort where they’re staying, guests’ cars are stuck in wet sand. Multitudes of Southeast Asian workers shovel the soaked earth, to little avail. The Wangs are marooned in their hotel until the next day. When the sun reappears, they dig into a bowl of beetroot and feta at an outdoor cafe called the Pink Camel, and all is forgotten. “Stunning view and very friendly people,” says Wang’s mother, Qiuju, a retired nurse.

The mother-daughter trip represents the promise and challenge of the Saudi government’s plan to spend almost $1 trillion to transform a country long wary of outsiders into a haven for visitors—not only for the religious pilgrims who’ve been traveling here to Mecca and Medina for centuries. Under his Vision 2030 initiative, Prince Mohammed, the country’s 38-year-old de facto ruler, widely known as MBS, wants to overtake the United Arab Emirates as a center for tourists as well as a destination for expatriates who stay to live and work. To buff its image, the kingdom has hired Western consultants such as McKinsey & Co. and PricewaterhouseCoopers and public-relations firms including Edelman and Teneo Global, whose work will be especially important when the country hosts World Expo 2030, the international fair.

The weather—heavy rain in winter, dust storms in spring and temperatures that can exceed 120F (49C) in summer—represents only one of Saudi Arabia’s challenges. The UAE’s Dubai attracts foreigners with a laissez-faire approach toward drinking and Western dress for women. In Saudi Arabia, until recently, a harsh interpretation of Islam governed almost every facet of daily life. Men and women couldn’t mix in public unless they were married or related, women couldn’t drive, and modesty for locals and foreigners alike was enforced, often by a special morality police squad. In 2019 the country relaxed the dress code for female visitors and established a visa for tourism. (Alcohol is still strictly prohibited.) The government aims to attract 70 million international visitors by 2030, up from 27 million in 2023.

AlUla is only one of the kingdom’s massive projects, and the progress so far raises questions about its lofty ­projections. Many of the newcomers Saudi Arabia hopes to attract are expected to live and work in Neom, a futuristic enclave in Saudi Arabia’s northwestern corner. Plans call for a 100-mile-long city called the Line, a floating industrial complex in the shape of an octagon and an outdoor ski resort with artificial snow. But Bloomberg News in April reported that the kingdom, attracting less foreign investment than expected, was scaling back its 2030 forecast for Neom’s population from 1.5 million to less than 300,000.

Even so, the kingdom is still developing the Red Sea Project, another resort area on the coast west of AlUla, and Qiddiya, an “entertainment city” in the capital of Riyadh with a Six Flags theme park and what it’s calling the world’s fastest roller coaster. A St. Regis resort, designed by Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and featuring seashell-shaped villas on stilts above water, has already opened on Ummahat Island not far from the new Red Sea International Airport in Hanak. And next year Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund expects to introduce Riyadh Air, which would compete with the UAE’s Emirates Airlines and Qatar Airways.

Suggesting the importance of visitors to the kingdom, which has long relied on fossil fuels, government ministers have come to describe tourists in a way you wouldn’t outside the Middle East: as “the new oil.”

Scenes from Saudi Arabia: Deepti Chandak, an influencer in Dubai, practices yoga in the desert, takes off in a hot air balloon, then rides a horse in shorts and a tank top. The Russian supermodel Lena Perminova, relaxing in a swimsuit, sits at the edge of a pool at a luxury resort. Millions of their followers have viewed these images, posted on Instagram, after excursions to AlUla. Last year, the Saudis paid a London-based social media agency to send popular travel bloggers to AlUla and elsewhere in the country. These posts represent triumphs in the Saudi government’s quest to change the country’s conservative image.

Several diplomats, speaking privately to avoid angering the government, question whether the kingdom has really changed enough to appeal to outsiders, especially from Western countries. US intelligence agencies consider MBS responsible for ordering the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a royal-court-insider-turned-critic. (The government denies his involvement.)

In its most recent travel advisory, the US Department of State tells citizens to reconsider traveling to Saudi Arabia because of risks including terrorism and arrests based on social media posts critical of the government. “Saudi is opening up to the world but closing on the Saudi people,” says Lina Alhathloul, a Saudi native living in Brussels, where she heads monitoring and advocacy at ALQST for Human Rights. “You can’t muzzle people and expect Westerners not to notice.”

Last year the government jailed Saudi fitness instructor and artist Manahel Al-Otaibi and charged her with incitement for demanding on social media more rights for Saudi women and refusing to wear a traditional abaya over her clothes in a mall, according to court documents reviewed by Bloomberg News.

And though many can get a tourist visa easily online, foreign laborers often have tenuous residency, and it’s still exceedingly hard for professionals to get permission to work in the kingdom. A director at one of the world’s top advertising agencies with almost 30 years of industry experience says he’s been waiting more than a year to get his Saudi residency visa, which must be renewed each year. (The official sought anonymity because of the risk of jeopardizing the application and his relationship with the Saudis.)

On the sidelines of a March event encouraging foreign investment, Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb says outsiders misunderstand the kingdom. He considers it unfair to compare Dubai with Saudi Arabia, which has its own traditions of hospitality. “We never judge anybody, and we believe no one should judge us,” says Al-Khateeb, an MBS confidant. “In our DNA, we like people. We welcome people.”

In another challenge, the rapid development of AlUla is displacing the region’s tribes. Near a new resort at the site of an Ottoman-era railway station, men sit on carpets laid out under a tent surrounded by palm and citrus trees. It’s the home and farm of members of the Al-Enezi, one of the area’s two main tribes. The Saudi ­state seized their relatives’ land because it stood in the way of the royal commission’s development plans, they say. As their life is disrupted, they complain they’re being shut out of work contracts in favor of outsiders with connections to government officials. None would be quoted by name, fearing the security services, which have arrested relatives for speaking out on social media.

There’s also trouble within AlUla’s royal commission itself. In January the government jailed Amr Al-Madani, its chief executive officer, on corruption charges. He was accused of abuse of authority and money laundering. In one instance, Al-Madani allegedly received kickbacks from a relative who secured contracts with the commission, according to the Saudi Oversight and Anti-Corruption Authority. Al-Madani, once prolific on social media, has not been heard from since and couldn’t be reached. The commission declined to discuss his case.

De Souza, the commission’s executive director for destination marketing, disputes the Al-Enezis’ grievances, saying all will benefit economically; the agency paid for 400 young people to study abroad on scholarships so they can work in AlUla. “The investment in people and in being able to improve their quality of lives is tangible,” she says. One scholarship recipient, Reham Al-Rayes, who was sent to study hospitality at Morgan State University in Maryland, is working in an AlUla art gallery, surrounded by trendy shops and cafes. She plans to work in a hotel, an opportunity afforded by her education: “It allowed me to open my wings and go.”

Last year a quarter of a million people visited AlUla, and a third were non-Saudis, says Phillip Jones, the chief tourism officer. You can fly directly from Dubai or several other regional cities to its airport, which will be getting a new terminal to accommodate 6 million annual travelers.

Those seeking upscale digs can stay in the five-star Banyan Tree AlUla, which offers three-bedroom villas with private pools for as much as $7,200 a night in late April, or the Habitas AlUla, which has the Celestial Villa ($1,300 a night), outfitted with telescopes to better view the surrounding cliffs. Within the new nature reserve, French architect Jean Nouvel, who designed the Louvre Abu Dhabi, is creating the Sharaan, a labyrinth of cavelike suites and villas carved into the area’s giant rock formations. “We’re like ambassadors,” says Wedad Yassin, a 28-year-old tour guide in AlUla, wearing an abaya and black headscarf. “We’re showing another face of Saudi Arabia.”

On a clear day in March, tourists in golf carts and jeeps bounce amid dunes and cliffs at Desert X AlUla, a biannual open-air exhibition affiliated with Coachella, the famed California desert arts festival. They gaze at a giant hollow sphere with reflective glass set against a line of rock fragments by Saudi artist Faisal Samra and terra cotta pots scattered on the sand courtesy of Ghanaian Ibrahim Mahama. “We are trying to give them the time of their lives,” says Abdulaziz Alsulami, 18, who recently graduated from an international school in Riyadh and works at the exhibition.

Back in the old town center, two Portuguese tourists, Ana Lopes, a nurse, and Ana Carvalho, a photographer, savor a plate of mutton on rice in a Middle Eastern fusion restaurant. Family and friends had counseled them not to come to Saudi Arabia because of safety concerns. They flew to Jeddah, stopping first in the holy city of Medina, where they ran into trouble because their pants exposed their ankles. “Five times we were told to cover up, and then a police officer told us it was best if we left, respectfully,” Carvalho says.

The day of the storm interferes with many of the guests’ plans. At the Banyan Tree resort, Maksim Sivaev and his friend Tanya Kortis survey the damage to their villa’s exterior after the gales and downpours. The wind has blown away all their outdoor furniture, and they’ve had to skip a massage because the spa is flooded.

The thirtysomething Russians, who work as financial and lifestyle consultants to the ultra-rich, came to Saudi Arabia for the first time after seeing social media posts, including the ones from Perminova, the supermodel-­turned-travel-blogger-and-influencer. “Before that, no one heard about Saudi Arabia or thought about going there,” Sivaev says, relaxing at the hotel restaurant in lime-green slippers and a T-shirt featuring Snoopy holding a surfboard.

Sivaev says more wealthy Russians will be open to visiting and investing, because Saudi Arabia has the potential to be another UAE, where his compatriots went in droves after President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Kortis suggests the kingdom still has its work cut out for it. She likes hanging out with the “pretty young people” who come to party in the UAE: “To live here isn’t that fun, compared with Dubai.” —With Christine Burke and Matthew Martin

Dagher reports from Bloomberg’s Dubai bureau.

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