The waters of the Red Sea are renowned for their great diversity of animal and plant life, but for a long time only those with ties to the Saudi royal family were allowed to admire the dazzling underwater world around its largest group of islands. Thanks to the kingdom’s recent forays into the tourism market, the Farasan Islands—25 miles (40 km) off the southern Saudi Arabian port of Jizan—have become a more accessible divers’ paradise that remains (at least for the time being) unaffected by human activity.
These eighty-four low-lying limestone islands and islets were created when sea levels rose after the last ice age, giving rise to vast areas of shallow water around them that have become home to expansive coral “gardens” full of marine life. The area is now a nature reserve. Farasan Kebir, the biggest island, is one of only three that are permanently inhabited, whereas the deserted islands making up the rest of the archipelago are ideal breeding grounds for sea turtles and birds. The islands are also home to Saudi Arabia’s largest population of gazelles, and they are one of the last habitats for the endangered dugong.
The tourist infrastructure here is guite refreshingly unsophisticated. The three-star Farasan Hotel—the only guesthouse on the islands—has limited space as well as some inadequacies, but the staff’s genuine excitement about having visitors from faraway places more than makes up for its foibles. When you wander along the empty beaches on the larger islands (where the only traces of life you will encounter are animal tracks and the occasional flock of flamingos curiously looking at you), or when you come face-to-face with dolphins, stingrays, and whale sharks in the warm waters surrounding the islands, you will feel as though you are truly in a different world.