S.Arabia launches tourist visa for 49 nations, abolishes abaya rule for foreign women - GulfToday

S.Arabia launches tourist visas for 49 nations, abolishes abaya rule for foreign women

Saudi Festival 6

Suadi women take photos during a festival. File

Saudi Arabia threw open its doors to foreign tourists on Friday, launching a new visa regime for 49 countries and appealing to foreign companies to invest in a sector it hopes will contribute 10% of gross domestic product by 2030.

The kingdom also eased 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, as authorities open up one of the last frontiers of global tourism.

Tourism chief Ahmed Al Khateeb told Reuters in an interview ahead of the official announcement that abayas will not be mandatory but modest dress covering shoulders and knees is, including at public beaches.

He indicated that alcohol remains banned: "We will have enough tourists to come to Saudi Arabia to enjoy other things."

Visas are now available online, on arrival or at Saudi diplomatic missions for about $120 including a health insurance fee, according to a press kit. Outbound countries include the United States, Russia, China, Japan and many European states, with more to be added later.

Saudi-Tour2 A Saudi guide leads a group of foreign tourists through the Al-Wahbah volcanic crater in the Al-Wahbah desert, some 360 kms northeast of Jeddah. AFP

Visas allow multiple entries and stays of up to 3 months. There are no restrictions for unaccompanied women as in the past, and Muslims can perform pilgrimage outside of Hajj season, the press kit said.

Until now, foreigners travelling to Saudi Arabia have been largely restricted to resident workers and their dependents, business travellers, and Muslim pilgrims who are given special visas to visit the Holy Cities of Makkah and Medina.

An e-visa for sporting events and concerts was introduced last December.

The move is part of the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman's ambitious plans to develop new industries to wean the world's top oil exporter off crude and open up society including by introducing previously banned entertainment.

Many of his reforms received international praise.

Khateeb, who chairs the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, said the country is "very, very safe" and the attack would not impact plans to attract tourists. 

Saudi-Tour3 A journalist takes a photo of a tomb at Madain Saleh, a UNESCO World Heritage site, near Al-Ula. AFP

Tourism is high on the crown prince's agenda, despite a shortage of infrastructure. To drive growth, Khateeb estimated some 250 billion riyals ($67 billion) of investments are needed, including 500,000 new hotel rooms by 2030 — half at government-backed mega projects and half from private investors.

The government signed memoranda of understanding totalling around 100 billion riyals with regional and international investors including conglomerate Triple Five and UAE-based developer Majid Al Futtaim.

The government wants to attract 100 million annual visits in 2030, up from about 40 million currently. Contribution to GDP is targeted to reach 10% from 3%.

The Gulf country, which shares borders with Iraq to the north and Yemen to the south, boasts vast tracts of desert but also verdant mountains, pristine beaches and historical sites including five UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

"We remain authentic," said Khateeb. "We have a great culture where many, many tourists would love to come and explore this culture and learn more about it and see it and experience it."

The development drive aims at adding 1 million tourism jobs. Getting hundreds of thousands of Saudis into the workforce remains a major challenge for the crown prince, who has so far only managed to make a dent in the official unemployment rate which remains over 12%.

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.

The government says by 2030 it aims to attract up to 100 million annual visits by both domestic and foreign tourists.

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


An aerial view of the Elephant rock in the Ula desert near the northwestern Saudi town of Al Ula. AFP

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.

Last year, construction of Qiddiya "entertainment city" was launched near Riyadh, which would include high-end theme parks, motor sport facilities and a safari area.

The country is also developing historic sites such as the centuries-old Mada'in Saleh, home to sandstone tombs of the same civilisation which built the Jordanian city of Petra.

Reuters / Agence France-Presse

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