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