by Greg Dickinson, The Telegraph, October 7, 2019
Saudi Arabia is opening its doors to international tourists for the first time in what ministers have described as a “historic moment”.
New visa rules, the details of which will be announced later today, promise to make it easier for travellers from 49 countries to visit. It has also been suggested that the dress code for foreign females is going to be relaxed.
Until recently, visas to Saudi Arabia have been restricted to religious pilgrims, business travellers and expat workers. Each year Mecca received 3.7 million Muslims for the Hajj and millions more for the Umrah.
But last year the conservative state began making efforts to woo international tourists. In October 2018 its government unveiled the “Sharek” visa, a short-term 14-day pass allowing foreign visitors to enter the country to attend a specific event.
It is believed the new visa arrangements announced today will further relax restrictions.
“Opening Saudi Arabia to international tourists is a historic moment for our country,” tourism chief Ahmed al-Khateeb said in a statement.
“Visitors will be surprised by the treasures we have to share – five Unesco World Heritage Sites, a vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty.”
Saudi Arabia’s tourism drive began in 2017, when crown prince Mohammed bin Salman revealed his “Vision 2030” plan – a scheme devised to shift the nation’s economy away from its reliance on oil and towards other markets.
Bin Salman has been labelled a “reformer prince” after the softening of other policies; Saudi women can now travel and drive without permission from a male guardian, for example.
As part of the new tourism policy, foreign women will be able to visit the country unaccompanied for the first time. They will reportedly not be required to wear the full-body abaya robe that Saudi women are required to wear, but must still dress modestly.
Non-Muslims will still not be allowed to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, and the nationwide alcohol ban will remain in place.
In a public announcement last month, the 33-year-old crown prince claimed that by 2030 tourism will contribute 10 per cent of Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product, a figure that would likely amount to over $100 billion and would make it one of the world’s top five tourism destinations.
In the last 24 hours Saudi Arabia has launched a Twitter page, @VisitSaudiNow. The account has sent out three tweets with the hashtag #WelcomeToArabia.
Part of bin Salman’s 2030 project is to create a tourism hub nearly twice the size of Wales on its unspoilt Red Sea coastline. An official statement explained that the transformed area will cover some 34,000 square kilometres between the cities of Umluf and Alwajh, including its 50 islands, and be governed by laws “on par with international standards”.
It is not only glitzy resorts that Saudi Arabia has promised. There are plans in place to build a $500 billion megacity called “Neom” in the economically neglected northwest of the country.
A report leaked to the Wall Street Journal shared proposals of robots outnumbering humans, “hologram teachers”, and cloud seeding in the city. According to the planning documents, bin Salman “envisions Neom the largest city globally by GDP”. While some construction workers have arrived in the area’s small towns and some building work has started, it is still unknown just how viable the new megacity is and when it will come to fruition.
New resorts and cities aside, Saudi Arabia has other hurdles to overcome when it comes to luring in international visitors.
The visa announcement comes just two weeks after attacks were carried out on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure, which shook global energy markets and stoked fears of a regional conflict.
Tourism Minister Mr al-Khateeb told the BBC he did not believe the recent attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry would put people off visiting.
“Our cities are among the most safest cities globally. Therefore, we don’t believe at all it will impact our plans. We have all the expats living in Saudi Arabia, enjoying Saudi Arabia. We are very secure,” he said.
There has also been international criticism of the country’s human rights record.
Last year, the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the regime, was murdered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in an act of premeditated violence at the hands of a 15-strong hit squad. America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has suggested that culpability for the killing goes to the top of the Saudi political system – perhaps even to the door of the Crown Prince himself.
Then there is the Riyadh-led intervention in Yemen – a military campaign which has sparked a humanitarian crisis in the kingdom’s southern neighbour.
And despite the loosening of certain laws, women still need consent from a male guardian to marry. They also cannot leave prison or a domestic violence shelter without a man’s permission, meaning in many cases a woman who has sought shelter from a male guardian who is abusing her can only leave the facility if that same guardian agrees to collect her.
The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has few concerns about British citizens travelling to the kingdom. Aside from a 50-mile exclusion zone along the troubled border with Yemen, it considers the whole country safe to visit.
It is not getting cheaper for Brits to visit Saudi Arabia. Compared to the day of the Brexit referendum in June 2016, the value of the pound has fallen 17 per cent against the Saudi Arabian riyal. This means tourists would now get £205 worth of local currency less for every £1,000 exchanged than they would have in June 2016, according to currency comparison site Equals.
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