RIYADH: Saudi Arabia announced on Friday it would reopen its borders to fully vaccinated foreign tourists after a 17-month closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, the state news agency said.

However, Riyadh did not announce any lifting of restrictions on Umra, which usually attracts millions of Muslims from across the globe each year. “The Ministry of Tourism announced that the Kingdom will open its doors to foreign tourists, and lift... the suspension of entry for tourist visa holders, starting from August 1,” the Saudi Press Agency reported.

It said travellers fully vaccinated with Saudi-approved jabs — Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson — will be able to enter the kingdom “without the need for an institutional quarantine period”, provided they also have proof of a negative PCR Covid-19 test taken within the last 72 hours and register their details with health authorities.

Riyadh has spent billions trying to build a tourism industry from scratch, as part of efforts to diversify its oil-reliant economy. The once-reclusive kingdom began issuing tourist visas for the first time in 2019, part of an ambitious push to revamp its global image and draw visitors.

Between September 2019 and March 2020, it issued 400,000 — only for the pandemic to crush that momentum as borders were closed.

Covid-19 also hugely disrupted the Haj and Umra pilgrimages, usually a key revenue earner for the kingdom — in normal times, they together rake in some $12 billion annually.

Currently only immunised pilgrims resident in Saudi Arabia are eligible for Umra permits.

The government has accelerated a nationwide vaccination drive as it moves to revive tourism and host sports and entertainment extravaganzas, all pandemic-hit sectors.

So far, 26 million jabs have been administered to the population of 35 million, and the kingdom has said that from August 1, vaccinations will be mandatory to enter government and private establishments, including education institutions and entertainment venues, as well as to use public transport.

Saudi Arabia has registered more than 523,000 coronavirus cases, with 8,213 deaths.

Published in Dawn, July 31st, 2021

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