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Dream of the Desert: Saudi Arabia is launching its own luxury train

by Chanel Rowe
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Originally Published: 29 JAN 24 10:15 ET

Updated: 29 JAN 24 10:21 ET

By Tamara Hardingham-Gill, CNN

Editor’s note: This CNN Travel series is, or was, sponsored by the country it highlights. CNN retains full editorial control over subject matter, reporting and frequency of the articles and videos within the sponsorship, in compliance with our policy.

(CNN) — Crossing the desert could be about to get much more glamorous.

State-owned railway company Saudi Arabia Railways (SAR) recently struck a 200 million Saudi riyals ($53.33 million) deal with Italian hospitality company Arsenale Group to launch the first luxury train in the Middle Eastern kingdom.

Saudi Arabia officially opened its doors to international tourists in a “historic moment” back in 2019 and the Middle Eastern kingdom has been pulling out all the stops to lure visitors over ever since.

The destination has made a number of high-profile tourism investments in recent years – a $500 billion model city in the desert of northwest Saudi Arabia among them.

Now Saudi Arabia is getting on board with the slow travel movement in a big way by moving into the luxury train market.

‘Luxury train cruise’

According to Saudi-Arabia’s State run media, the new train is due to begin operations in late 2025, Dream of the Desert will offer “luxury train cruise” journeys from the capital city of Riyadh to Qurayyat, which is situated close to the northern border with Jordan, according to a press release issued by SAR last week.

The 1,300-kilometer route is to stretch across Saudi Arabia’s stunning desert landscapes, along with the city of Hail.

With a design inspired by “Saudi style and tradition,” the “fully-customized” trains, made up of 40 luxury cabins, are already under construction, with reservations scheduled to open at the end of the year.

One or two-night trips will be available to book, with a maximum capacity of 82 passengers, according to Paolo Barletta, CEO of Arsenale.

“The initial production phases of the Dream of the Desert carriages in Italy have recently commenced, and we can’t wait for the debut of our first train in the kingdom in the coming years,” Barletta said in an official statement.

‘Greener choice’

Saudi Arabia’s decision to enter the luxury train market comes as demand for high-speed trains and luxury “rail cruises” continues to increase around the world.

Many countries have been investing millions, or billions in some cases, into new infrastructure as customers seek out more sustainable alternatives to short haul travel and/or gridlocked highways.

US President Joe Biden has pledged $30 billion for rail projects and upgrades across the country, while, according to Reuters, France plans to strengthen its rail network by investing around €100 billion ($106 billion) into train travel by 2040.

The Saudi service is scheduled to launch a year or so after “Orient Express – La Dolce Vita,” a collaboration between Arsenale Group and the Accor Group.

Renderings of the 11-carriage train, which takes inspiration from the “La Dolce Vita” period of the 1960s, were unveiled back in 2021, revealing an incredibly opulent interior, with 12 “deluxe cabins,” 18 suites, an “Honour Suite” and a restaurant carriage.

“Train travel represents the greener choice of transportation, enhancing trips to great cities as well as small-medium sized locations with appealing cultural sites and scenery,” Luigi Corradi, CEO and General Manager of Trenitalia, part of Italy’s state railway company Ferrovie dello Stato, said in a statement at the time.

News of the upcoming arrival of Dream of the Desert comes nearly six years after the launch of Saudi Arabia’s Haramain High Speed Railway, connecting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina with King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, in 2018.

Infrastructure investment

Carrying trains at speeds of up to 300 kph (186 mph,) the rail network is expected to eventually stretch all the way across the Middle Eastern kingdom.

Enhancements are also being made into existing lines in the country’s northwest, with more high-speed services to come.

Back in January 2022, Saudi Arabia’s Investment Minister Khalid al-Falih announced plans to build 8,000 kilometers (4,970 miles) of rail across the whole country.

And more developments are likely to be announced in the coming months as the Middle Eastern kingdom moves full steam ahead with its bid to invigorate its tourism sector, diversify its economy, and reduce its reliance on oil revenue.

Saudi Arabia plans to invest over $800 billion into tourism over the next 10 years, aiming to attract 70 million international tourists a year by 2030.

Projects currently underway include a brand-new luxury regenerative tourism destination along the Red Sea coast and futuristic city NEOM, which is being built from scratch in the desert of northwest Saudi Arabia.

Recent figures suggest that these efforts have been paying off.

According to the UNWTO, the country reported a 56% growth in international arrivals in 2023 from 2019 pre-pandemic levels.

The Saudi Railway Company has pledged its commitment to a government program known as Saudi Vision 2030 aimed at diversifying the country’s economy over the next decade, stressing that the development of the tourism and culture sector “is one of its most important objectives.”

SAR’s CEO, Bashar bin Khaled Al Malik, says he believes that Dream of the Desert will prove to be a significant addition to the company, offering both visitors and residents the chance to discover more of the kingdom’s regions “within an integrated framework of luxurious transportation services.”

So will Dream of the Desert be impressive enough to compete with the likes of Orient Express – La Dolce Vita, Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, which runs from London to Venice, or even Seven Stars in Kyushu, one of Japan’s most luxurious trains.

We’ll have to wait and see. But it’s clear that SAR has high hopes for the ambitious concept.

“The signing of this MoU [memorandum of understanding] between SAR and Arsenale is to be considered a first step towards the introduction of a new offer within the tourism market with an experience of luxury travel by train,” says Al Malik.

CNN’s Lilit Marcus and Ben Jones contributed to this article.

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