Saudi Arabia is now offering visas for the first time to non-religious tourists, in an historic move that aims to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from oil.
Speaking on World Tourism Day, Ahmad bin Aqil al-Khatib, chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism & National Heritage (SCTH) board of directors, said the Kingdom is opening “its doors to the world”.
“Today we not only welcome visitors, but also investors in the sector and business men and women, as there are big opportunities available to invest in the sector’s fields,” al-Khatib said in a statement.
The announcement comes as part of the country’s ambitious bid to become an international tourist destination, with aspirations to receive 100 million visitors annually by 2030. At present, it receives 41 million.
The country is targeting 2030 tourism revenue to count for 10 per cent of gross national income, which currently stands at three per cent.
As a result, citizens of 49 countries are as of now able to obtain visas to the kingdom online or upon arrival.
Australia, Germany, France, Japan, Portugal, Spain, and the US are among those currently able to apply. However, the SCTH said this would be rolled out to all countries.
The kingdom is also investing heavily on urban development, with the city of Riyadh spending more than US$23 billion (around $34 billion) on transforming the capital into one of the most liveable cities in the world.
Among the spend includes the development of the largest park in the world, King Salman Park, which will cover 13.4 square kilometres. The Riyadh project aims to complement and is aligned with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
Non-Muslims will remain banned from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, while foreign female tourists will not be obliged to wear abayas, al-Khatib told Reuters, which is mandatory dress for Saudi women in public.
Women will, however, be required to cover their shoulders and knees, but further tourist expectations will be made clear when applying for visas, al-Khatib said.
The timing of the announcement has raised eyebrows around the world. It comes just days after Saudi Arabia’s human rights record was brought into question from the UN for the second time in a year, according to The Guardian.
When asked about negative perceptions of Saudi Arabia among tourists, al-Khatib said he was “sure they will have a better judgement when they come and experience the life here in Saudi Arabia, and I promise them they will leave with great memories”.
Moreover, just a day after SCTH’s visa announcement, the Saudi Arabia Internal Ministry revealed it plans to impose fines on tourists for “public indecency”, according to Deutsche Welle. Offences include dressing immodestly, public displays of affection, taking photos of others without their permission, spitting, littering, and playing music at prayer time.
Al-Khatib said the announcement had already attracted a lot of attention from investors, with Saudi Arabia drawing in some 115 billion riyals (more than $45 billion) in investment thus far.
Lonely Planet describes Saudi Arabia as “a final frontier of tourism”, listing Jeddah, Jubbah, Mecca and Asir National Park as some of the top experiences in the country.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) currently advises travellers to reconsider their need to visit Saudi Arabia.
“If you do travel, do your research and take a range of extra safety precautions, including having contingency plans. Check that your travel insurer will cover you,” the Smartraveller notice says.
Featured image: Qasr Al-Farid, a UNESCO World Heritage in Saudi Arabia.