Saudi Arabia's tourism landmark Al Ula signs agreement with Accor

RIYADH, Aug 9 (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has agreed with Europe’s biggest hotel group Accor for the group to expand and operate a resort at the $20 billion Al-Ula tourism project in the kingdom’s northwestern region, the Royal Commission for the project said on Sunday.

Al-Ula, the site of an ancient civilization in a remote northwestern corner of the country, is part of plans by the world’s top crude exporter to diversify its economy away from oil and open up after decades of seclusion.

The agreement will see Accor operate an expanded Ashar Resort under the Banyan Tree brand, with 47 new units bringing the resort’s total capacity to 82 high-end villas, along with a spa and several gourmet restaurants, a commission statement said.

The project is located in the Ashar valley, 15 km (9 miles) from the Kingdom’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra.

In April, Saudi Arabia’s tourism minister told Reuters the sector could see a 35-45% decline this year due to measures taken by the government to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

The ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom, relatively closed off for decades, has in recent years relaxed strict social codes such as the segregation of men and women in public and the requirement that women wear all-covering black robes, or abayas.

Al-Ula’s development is part of a push to preserve pre-Islamic heritage sites in order to attract non-Muslim tourists and strengthen national identity. It plans an official opening to the world as a year-round destination in October 2020.

The kingdom closed its borders to foreign “umrah” pilgrims and to tourists from at least 25 countries in late February. In March, it barred all travel in and out of the country. Saudi Arabia has reported 287,262 cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, and 3,130 deaths so far. (Reporting by Marwa Rashad; editing by Philippa Fletcher)