Saudi Arabia threw open its doors to foreign tourists on Friday. They are launching a new visa regime for 49 countries and appealing to foreign companies to invest in a sector it hopes will contribute 10 percent of gross domestic product by 2030.
The Muslim kingdom, relatively closed off for decades, has in recent years relaxed strict social codes. They stopped segregating men and women in public places and requiring women to wear all-covering black robes or abayas.
Tourism chief Ahmed Al-Khateeb told Reuters in an interview ahead of the official announcement that abayas will not be mandatory for women tourists but modest dress is, including at public beaches.
"We will have enough tourists to come to Saudi Arabia to enjoy other things. We remain authentic, and we have a great culture where many, many tourists would love to come and explore this culture and learn more about it and see it and experience it." Ahmed Al-Khateeb said
The new visa regime for 49 countries
Saudi Arabia is launching a new visa regime for 49 countries. Visas will be available online for about $80 (Dh294), with no restrictions for unaccompanied women as in the past. Access to the Muslim holy cities of Makkah and Medina is restricted.
Until now, foreigners traveling to Saudi Arabia have been largely restricted to resident workers and their dependents, business travelers, and Muslim pilgrims who are given special visas to visit Makkah and Madinah. Currently, only citizens of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and the UAE can travel freely to the country.
Saudi Arabia authorities recently launched the website whereintheworld.co
that shows beautiful pictures of destinations along with captions such as “Does this look like Morocco to you? It's not!” to boost interest in their country.
The visa plan is part of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ambitious plans to develop new industries. He wants to open up society including introducing previously banned entertainment. Many of his reforms received international praise. The kingdom has ended a nearly 40-year ban on cinemas, allowed music concerts. That includes performances by Western pop stars and organized international sporting events.
Saudi Arabia has a long way to go given its strict laws, but this is a step towards the future. The full list of the 49 countries to get the opportunity for the tourist visa is going to be released at 10.30 pm UAE time.