Saudi Arabia to welcome foreign tourists with new visa

As part of its goal to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil revenues, Saudi Arabia has opened its doors to foreign tourists for the first time. This is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s economic reform program.

Saudi Arabia plans to increase the number of international and domestic visits to 100 million by the end of 2030. The government is looking at creating one million tourism jobs.

This move by Saudi Arabia comes amid being criticisms for its human rights abuses and records including the crackdown on women’s rights activists and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

The kingdom launched a visa regime covering 49 countries last Friday. This was dubbed as a “historic moment” by the Tourism Minister Ahmad al-Khateeb. Among Saudi Arabia’s top targets are China, Europe, Japan, and the United States

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

In the past, visas were only issued strictly to pilgrims, expatriate workers, and business people. However, Saudi Arabia is looking at securing foreign investments in its tourism sector. It aims for the tourism industry’s contribution to the country’s gross domestic product to increase from three percent to 10% by the year 2030.

The country started a massive tourism development plan in 2017. This project’s goal is to make 50 islands and other locations on the Red Sea into luxury resorts.

In 2018, construction started in Qiddiya near Riyadh. Tagged as “entertainment city”, this area will include motorsport facilities, high-end theme parks, and a safari area.

To drive tourism growth, Khaleeb estimated that Saudi Arabia needs about $6 billion of investments. About half of these megaprojects will be backed by the government. The other half will be coming from private investors.

Those who are interested to visit Saudi Arabia can get the visas online for about $80. It will have no restrictions for unaccompanied women. Tourists coming to the country are still not allowed to visit the holy cities of Medina and Mecca. According to Khateeb, alcohol is still banned in the country.

Despite being a conservative country, Saudi Arabia will be relaxing its strict dress codes for female tourists. They will not be required to wear abayas or the all-covering black robes donned by Saudi women. Women tourists will be asked to wear modest clothing instead.

With the announcement of its issuance of foreign visas, Khateeb said the recent attack on Saudi Aramco’s oil facilities will not affect those who plan to visit the kingdom.

“Our cities are among the safest cities globally. Therefore, we don’t believe at all it will impact our plans. We have all the expats living in Saudi Arabia, enjoying Saudi Arabia. We’re very secure,” said Khateeb.

Khateeb also responded to the issue of people in the Western world and their negative perceptions of the country. He said: “I’m very, very sure they will have a better judgment when they come and experience the life here in Saudi Arabia, and I promise them they will leave with great memories.”

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