Saudi Arabia, for the first time in its history, is opening its doors to foreign tourists. As of now, the Saudi government will accept online applications from citizens of 49 countries for tourist visas. Previously, the country only issued visas for business trips, religious pilgrimage or family gatherings. The new move is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious plans to develop -and stimulate- new industries within the Kingdom, moving off from the reliance on oil while also opening up the nation’s society.
Changes in recent years
The drive for tourism is part of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, which was first announced in April 2016. The plan aims to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil, diversify its economy, and develop public service sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, recreation and tourism.
The government has in recent years softened some of its strict laws and social customs, both internationally and domestically. These range anywhere from rigid dress codes to the segregation of men and women in public places. Up until June 2018, Saudi Arabia was indeed unique in being the only country in the world where women were forbidden to drive.
Other reforms and developments within the country under the reign of Mohammad bin Salman include the first Saudi public concerts by a female singer, admitting women to sports stadiums and an increased presence of women in the workforce.
With the announced tourist visa program, foreign women will need not comply to wearing the body-covering abaya. They will, however, be instructed to wear “modest clothing,” according to Ahmed Al-Khateeb, chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage. Said dress attire is also expected when visiting the many Saudi beaches. Visas will furthermore be available to female travellers without the presence of a male guardian, as was standard in the past.
The country’s future
The Kingdom seeks to attract 100 million visitors a year by 2030. Currently sitting at just 3 per cent, the Saudis aim to increase the tourism sector‘s contribution towards gross domestic product to 10 per cent by 2030. Tourism is thus high on the Crown Prince’s agenda, despite a current lack of infrastructure. Ahmed al-Khateeb has in turn estimated a whopping 250 billion Riyals (some $66 billion USD) of investments are needed. This includes the construction of 500,000 new hotel rooms within the next decade. Other initiatives include NEOM, a futuristic mega-city, the Red Sea Project which includes an airport, marina and recreation centres as well as the Red Sea International Film Festival.
Foreign investors and businesses have also already put several projects in place. Six Flags, for example, is building a theme park at Qiddiya, a leisure and entertainment destination nearby the capital city of Riyadh. The park will feature record-breaking roller coasters, unique thrill experiences, incredible live shows and much more. Saudi Arabia’s General Investment Authority (SAGIA) has also signed an agreement worth $10 billion USD with Canada-based Triple 5 to develop a series of mixed-use tourism, hospitality and entertainment destinations across the country. Agreements are also in place for the creation of a mixed-use shopping and entertainment destination that will house the region’s largest indoor ski slope and snow park.
Saudi Arabia’s Highlights
Saudi Arabia is the largest country in the Middle East and 13th largest in the world. The Gulf nation is known mainly for its vast desert, but many may not know it is also home to verdant mountains, pristine beaches and historical sites including a handful of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
“In Saudi Arabia, the market fundamentals are in place for a vibrant tourism industry and we believe that the private sector will play a crucial role in unlocking this potential,” said Ibrahim Al-Omar, Governor of SAGIA. Ahmed Al-Khateeb adds,“Visitors will be surprised… by the treasures we have to share – five Unesco World Heritage Sites, a vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty.”
Visas are available online for about $80 USD. Non-Muslims are still not be allowed to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Furthermore, the ban on alcohol is expected to be maintained.
A newly released promotional video showcases the highlights which Saudi has to offer.