BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Saudi Arabia has started offering tourist visas for the first time, opening up the conservative Islamic kingdom to holidaymakers as part of a push to diversify its economy away from oil.
Visas in the desert kingdom, endowed with rich bedouin heritage and archaeological sites, had until now been restricted to expat workers, their dependents and the Muslim pilgrims travelling to Islam’s holiest sites.
Citizens from 49 countries are eligible for online e-visas or visas on arrival, including Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, China, the United States and several European countries. Citizens from other nations must obtain a visa through Saudi overseas missions.
In a press conference in Bandar Seri Begawan on Tuesday, officials from the Saudi embassy gathered media, travel agents and Brunei government officials to convey the message that the kingdom was “opening up” to foreign tourists the first time.
Saudi ambassador Emad bin Abdelaziz Almhanna said by 2030 the country is looking to attract 100 million annual visits by both domestic and foreign tourists, a huge number by tourism industry standards.
The Arab nation already receives around 19 million Muslim visitors for the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages each year, with revenue expected to exceed US$150 billion by 2022.
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.
Riyadh says it hopes tourism will contribute up to 10 percent of gross domestic product by 2030, compared to three percent currently.
The sector is expected to create up to one million tourism jobs, the government says, as it battles high youth unemployment.
In an effort to change perceptions about the ultra-conservative kingdom, Prince Mohammed has relaxed some of the country’s most rigid rules — lifting a ban on cinemas and women drivers while allowing gender-mixed concerts and sporting events.
“Saudi Arabia is opening. We are opening our economy. We are opening our society,” said Ahmad Al-Khateeb, chairman for the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Development, during an official gala to mark the launch in Diriyah, a historical site near Riyadh.
— Visit Saudi (@VisitSaudiNow) September 27, 2019
Khateeb said there will be no restrictions on unaccompanied foreign women, who will also not be obliged to wear an abaya (which is still mandatory for Saudi women) although they will be expected to dress modestly.
Men and women must avoid “tight-fitting clothing” or clothes with “profane language or images”, read an instruction on an English language website launched by the tourism authority.
But international criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record, including the gruesome murder last year of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and a crackdown on female activists, could put off foreign visitors, observers say.
The government, wary of its public image, has even enlisted Instagram travel influencers to help rehabilitate its reputation.
Where to go in Saudi Arabia?
Saudi Arabia has splurged billions in an attempt to build a tourism industry from scratch.
The government has signed agreements worth around US$27 billion with regional and international investors, including hotels and real estate developers.
Last year, construction of Qiddiya “entertainment city” was launched near Riyadh, which would include high-end theme parks, motor sport facilities and a safari area.
The kingdom also announced a multi-billion dollar project to turn 50 islands and other pristine sites on the Red Sea into luxury resorts.
Saudi Arabia is home to five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, such as Mada’in Saleh Al-Ula, a 2000-year-old archeological area dotted with pre-Islamic ruins and sandstone tombs built by the same civilisation which built Petra in Jordan.
Others include Al-Ahsa, a desert oasis with millions of date palms that carries traces of human occupation dating back to Neolithic times.
The Saudi embassy in Bandar Seri Begawan said Brunei citizens can apply for an e-visa online, or obtain a visa on arrival. The visa fee and health insurance will cost approximately $163.
Holders of tourist visas are allowed to perform Umrah, but it does not permit them to perform Haj which is subject to different regulations. The cities of Mecca and Medina are off limits to non-Muslims.
When asked if stateless Bruneian permanent residents, who hold an International Certificate of Identity, can travel to the kingdom, the embassy said it would assess such applicants on a case-to-case basis.
— Additional reporting from AFP