Saudi Arabia opens to tourists

Visitors take pictures at majestic rock-hewn tombs of Madain Saleh near the city al-Ula, Saudi Arabia | Photo: Reuters

Riyadh: Saudi Arabia said Friday it was offering tourist visas for the first time, opening up the ultra-conservative Islamic kingdom to holidaymakers as part of a push to diversify its economy away from oil.

The kingdom also eased its strict dress code for foreign women, allowing them to go without the body-shrouding abaya robe that is still mandatory public wear for Saudi women, as authorities open up one of the last frontiers of global tourism.

"We make history" today, tourism chief Ahmed al-Khateeb said in a statement.

"For the first time, we are opening our country to tourists from all over the world." Citizens from 49 countries are eligible for online e-visas or visas on arrival, including the United States, Australia and several European nations, the statement said.

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.

But the conservative country, which forbids alcohol and is notorious for sex segregation, is seen as an unlikely destination for global tourists aside from Muslim pilgrims visiting holy sites in Mecca and Medina.

Tourism authorities have repeatedly said that Saudi Arabia will not permit alcohol.

But Khateeb said there will be no restrictions on unaccompanied foreign women, who will also not be obliged to publicly wear an abaya even as they are expected to dress modestly.

The billowy over-garment is customary public wear for women in the kingdom, where it is widely seen as a symbol of piety, but many Saudi women have long demanded an end to the restriction.

Visas in the desert kingdom, endowed with rich Bedouin heritage and archaeological sites, had until now been restricted to expat workers, their dependents and Muslim pilgrims travelling to holy sites in Mecca and Medina.

Riyadh last year began issuing temporary visas to visitors to attend sporting and cultural events.

In an effort to change perceptions, Prince Mohammed has relaxed some of the kingdom's most rigid rules – lifting a cinema ban and allowing gender-mixed concerts and sporting extravaganzas.

"Saudi Arabia is opening. We are opening our economy. We are opening our society," Khateeb said.

The sector is expected to create up to one million tourism jobs, the government says, as it battles high youth unemployment.

Saudi Arabia has splurged billions in an attempt to build a tourism industry from scratch.

In 2017, the kingdom announced a multi-billion dollar project to turn 50 islands and other pristine sites on the Red Sea into luxury resorts.

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 push comes just under two weeks after devastating attacks on Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure – blamed by Washington on Iran – which roiled global energy markets and raised fears of a wider regional conflict.

The country is also developing historic sites such as the centuries-old Mada'in Saleh, home to sandstone tombs of the same civilisation which built the Jordanian city of Petra.

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