Saudi Arabia offers tourist visas for first time

Published September 28, 2019
Saudi Arabia opens up the kingdom to holidaymakers as part of a push to diversify its economy away from oil. — Reuters/File
Saudi Arabia opens up the kingdom to holidaymakers as part of a push to diversify its economy away from oil. — Reuters/File

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia said on Friday it was offering tourist visas for the first time, opening up the kingdom to holidaymakers as part of a push to diversify its economy away from oil.

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.

The push comes just under 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.

“We make history” today, tourism chief Ahmed al-Khateeb said in a statement. “For the first time, we are opening our country to tourists from all over the world.” Citizens from 49 countries are eligible for online e-visas or visas on arrival, including the United States, Australia and several European nations, the statement said.

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.

But the conservative country, which forbids alcohol and is known for segregation, is seen as an unlikely destination for global tourists aside from Muslim pilgrims visiting holy sites in Makkah and Madina.

Tourism authorities have repeatedly said that Saudi Arabia will not permit alcohol. But Khateeb said there would be no restrictions on unaccompanied foreign women, who would also not be obliged to publicly wear an abaya even as they are expected to dress modestly.

Visas in the desert kingdom, endowed with rich Bedouin heritage and archaeological sites, had until now been restricted to expat workers, their dependents and pilgrims travelling to holy sites in Makkah and Madina.

Riyadh last year began issuing temporary visas to visitors to attend sporting and cultural events. In an effort to change perceptions, Prince Mohammed has relaxed some of the kingdom’s most rigid rules — lifting a cinema ban and allowing gender-mixed concerts and sporting extravaganzas.

“Saudi Arabia is opening. We are opening our economy. We are opening our society,” Khateeb said.

But fears of a regional conflict after the Sept 14 attacks on state oil giant Aramco may dampen the kingdom’s appeal to holidaymakers.

Published in Dawn, September 28th, 2019

Opinion

Editorial

Beyond the pale
Updated 09 Aug, 2022

Beyond the pale

When such ugliness is unleashed, everyone at some point suffers the fallout.
Burying Gaza
09 Aug, 2022

Burying Gaza

IT is a sad commentary on the politics of the Middle East that even its most tragic human stories get defaced and...
Celebrate the athlete
09 Aug, 2022

Celebrate the athlete

TALK about delivering on your promise: javelin thrower Arshad Nadeem did that in the grandest style at the...
An unseemly dispute
08 Aug, 2022

An unseemly dispute

THERE is clarity, but perhaps not of the kind that Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial hoped to achieve when...
Unfair on taxpayers
Updated 08 Aug, 2022

Unfair on taxpayers

Unfair move has drawn valid criticism as it coincides with drastic increase in income tax on salaried people and corporates.
Polio nightmare
08 Aug, 2022

Polio nightmare

AS if the resurgence of polio in southern KP were not enough, officials and international monitoring bodies must now...