Saudi Arabia to offer tourist visas for first time

RIYADH (AFP) – Saudi Arabia said yesterday it will offer tourist visas for the first time, opening up the kingdom to holidaymakers as part of a push to diversify its economy away from oil.

Kickstarting tourism is one of the centrepieces of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform programme to prepare the biggest Arab economy for a post-oil era.

The announcement comes just two weeks after devastating attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure – blamed by Washington on Iran – which roiled global energy markets and raised fears of a wider regional conflict.

“Opening Saudi Arabia to international tourists is a historic moment for our country,” Tourism Chief Ahmed al-Khateeb said in a statement.

“Visitors will be surprised… by the treasures we have to share – five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty.”

Saudi Arabia will open applications for online tourist visas to citizens of 49 countries today, Bloomberg News quoted Khateeb as saying.

Khateeb said the kingdom will also ease its strict dress code for foreign women, allowing them to go without the body-shrouding abaya robe that is still mandatory public wear for Saudi women.

A woman takes a photo of a tomb at Madain Saleh, a UNESCO World Heritage site, near Saudi Arabia’s northwestern town of al-Ula. PHOTO: AFP

Foreign women, however, will be required to wear “modest clothing”, he added, without elaborating.

Visas in the desert kingdom, endowed with rich bedouin heritage and archaeological sites, are currently restricted to expat workers, their dependents and Muslim pilgrims travelling to holy sites in Makkah and Madinah.

In a rare move, Saudi Arabia last year began issuing temporary visas to visitors to attend sporting and cultural events in a bid to kickstart tourism. Prince Mohammed is seeking to change that through a sweeping liberalisation drive that has brought new cinemas, concerts and sporting extravaganzas to Saudi Arabia.

The government, reeling from low oil prices, said it hopes tourism will contribute up to 10 per cent of the gross domestic product by 2030, compared to three per cent currently.

It says by 2030 it aims to attract up to 100 million annual visits by both domestic and foreign tourists. But the kingdom currently lacks the infrastructure to accomodate visitors in such high numbers, with officials estimating 500,000 new hotel rooms will be required nationwide over the coming decade.

The sector is expected to create up to one million tourism jobs, the government says, as it battles high youth unemployment.

Saudi Arabia has splurged billions in an attempt to build a tourism industry from scratch.

In 2017, the kingdom announced a multi-billion dollar project to turn 50 islands and other pristine sites on the Red Sea into luxury resorts.