A Saudi woman walks with her luggage as she arrives at the King Khalid International Airport on Monday. Reuters
Hundreds of cars crowded roads linking Saudi Arabia and Bahrain on Monday, as Riyadh permitted citizens vaccinated against COVID-19 to travel abroad more than a year after barring external trips.
A pileup of Saudi nationals' cars as they enter Bahrain at King Fahad Causeway. AFP
The King Fahd Causeway, a 25 kilometres series of bridges closed in March last year, was packed with traffic as Saudi Arabia reopened its land, sea and air borders.
Saudi citizens are still barred from direct or indirect travel to 13 countries, including tourism hotspots Turkey, Lebanon and India due to the threat of the pandemic, the interior ministry said.
Saudi nationals who have received at least one COVID-19 vaccination shot a minimum two weeks prior to travel, those who have recovered from the coronavirus disease within the last six months, and those under 18 will be allowed to travel for the first time since March 2020.
The easing of rules prompted a rush of holidaymakers to exit the kingdom, following the holiday of Eid Al Fitr. "It's a beautiful feeling after such a long absence from Bahrain," said Mohammed, a Saudi travelling to the island nation.
Saudis wait for their turn to check-in their laguages at the King Khalid International Airport. Reuters
Travellers also flocked to Saudi Arabia's airports on Monday for flights abroad. "It's a great feeling, thank God, we are happy, especially after the difficult period we and the entire world have suffered," said Bandar Al Nawash, a passenger waiting in the departure lounge of King Khalid International Airport.
A Saudi man gets his passport from an immigration officer at the King Khalid International Airport. Reuters
Fellow national Faisal Al Tamimi said he had expected large crowds at the airport, but there were only a few travellers early on Monday after the suspension was lifted at 1 a.m. local time.
"I think people are worried about the coronavirus variants such as the one in India, and new developments in some countries," Al Tamimi said.
The opening of borders will give a welcome boost to Bahrain's tourism industry, which is heavily reliant on high-rollers from its neighbour. For decades, the causeway linking Bahrain to Saudi Arabia has served as a key artery, bringing visitors who pack out Bahrain's shopping malls and hotels. But since coronavirus slammed on the brakes, traffic was reduced to a trickle.
Saudi women arrive to King Khalid International airport in Riyadh. AFP
"We have been confined within Saudi for around a year and a half, so we can hardly believe the ban is lifted and we can see the world," said Nawaf Al Askar, a Saudi heading from Riyadh to Bosnia and Herzegovina with his family. Other travellers were leaving to resume their studies abroad or for long-delayed business trips. "We have been dreaming (of travelling) for more than a year... Thank God the airport is open and we can run away," said Riyadh resident Saleh.
Boon for Bahrain
Bahrain tourism officials were jubilant at the reopening of the causeway, after the long closure, which reportedly cost its economy more than $10 million a day.
Bahrain men welcome Saudi travellers with the Saudi and Bahraini flags on the King Fahad Causeway. AFP
"It's a very symbolic occasion, representing the fact that we are... emerging hopefully out of COVID into a stage of normalcy," said Nasser Ali Qaedi, chief executive of Bahrain Tourism and Exhibition Authority (BTEA). Bahrain's economy will see a $2.9 billion boost following the lifting of Saudi restrictions, Al Arabiya television reported, citing the Bahrain Economists Society.
"Everybody is asking — when are we going to return to pre-COVID levels, and no one can give an answer with a great deal of certainty on that," Qaedi said. "It's unlikely to happen this year, however we're looking to see how much we can progress." "We're anticipating a strong comeback globally, as COVID restrictions starts to ease and people start to find mechanisms to best handle the pandemic."
The enforced pause has given Bahrain an opportunity to develop its tourism industry — beyond its role.
No quarantine for foreign visitors
A Saudi man checks-in his lugages at the King Khalid International Airport. Reuters
Saudi Arabia also announced that foreign visitors arriving by air from most countries will no longer need to quarantine if they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.
The relaxing of the travel rules in Saudi Arabia represents an incentive for citizens — barred from travelling abroad since the pandemic began — to get vaccinated.
A Saudi woman waits for her turn to check-in her lugagages at the King Khalid International Airport. Reuters
Three categories of citizens are permitted to travel: those who have received two doses of the vaccine, those administered a single dose at least 14 days prior to travel, and people who have recovered from infection within the last six months. Unvaccinated children can also travel provided they have an approved insurance policy.
Saudi's health ministry said it has administered more than 11 million coronavirus vaccine doses, in a country with a population of over 34 million. The kingdom has reported more than 433,000 coronavirus infections and over 7,000 deaths from Covid-19. Bahrain has recorded over 199,000 cases, including over 730 deaths.
Agence France-Presse / Reuters
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