Saudi Arabia opens up with new tourist visa system

The Old Town of Jeddah

In a historic move, Saudi Arabia is opening its doors to international visitors for the first time.

Visas are available for citizens from up to 49 countries and are valid for up to one year, cost about $120 including a health insurance fee, and allow multiple entries and stays of up to three months. Tourists can also apply for a visa through Saudi embassies and consulates across the world.

Tourist visas for Saudi Arabia are now also available online and on arrival to holidaymakers who already hold a visa from the United States, Britain or Schengen visa, expanding eligibility beyond the initial list of 49 countries.

There are no restrictions for unaccompanied women as in the past. However, access to the Muslim holy cities of Makkah and Madinah is restricted.

Opening Saudi to tourism is a key milestone in the implementation of Vision 2030, which seeks to diversify the country's economy and reduce its dependence on oil.

Ahmad Al-Khateeb, Chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, commented: "Opening Saudi Arabia to international tourists is a historic moment for our country. Generous hospitality is at the heart of Arabian culture and we look forward to showing our guests a very warm welcome. Visitors will be surprised and delighted by the treasures we have to share. Five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty.

“To visitors we say: be among the first to discover and explore the treasures of Arabia.

“To investors we say: become part of the fastest growing tourism sector on earth."

Saudi Arabia expects to increase international and domestic visits to 100 million a year by 2030, attracting significant foreign and domestic investment and creating a million jobs.

By 2030, the aim is for tourism to contribute up to 10 per cent towards the Saudi GDP, compared to just 3 per cent today.

Billions of dollars are being spent to improve infrastructure and develop heritage, cultural and entertainment sites.

Saudi's airport capacity is expected to increase by 150 million passengers per annum and an additional 500,000 hotel key cards will be needed across the country over the coming decade.

Saudi Arabia reportedly welcomed 24,000 foreign visitors within the first 10 days of the implementation of instant tourist visas, a new initiative by the kingdom to boost tourism and reduce its reliance on oil revenue.

China topped the list of visitors to the kingdom, followed by the UK and US, said a report in Arab News.

European nations France and Germany were also on the list, with Canada, Malaysia and Russia just behind the top three. Australia and Kazakhstan were in ninth and 10th place, it said.

The recently announced visa system was introduced in a bid to attract 100 million tourists by 2030 as part of the Vision 2030 programme.

Outside of religious journeys, the new visa does not exclude any visitor on religious grounds and successful applicants can make multiple visits to the kingdom within a 12-month period, provided each visit does not exceed 90 days, the report said.