Millions of Muslims descend on the country every year for the haj but apart from visas issued for the pilgrimage, the only entry permits available to tourists are expensive and difficult to secure.
“Tourist visas will be introduced soon,” said Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, head of the Saudi tourism authority.
The idea of encouraging tourism was floated by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman when he announced his “Vision 2030” plan in spring last year to boost the country’s ailing economy.
Saudi Arabia, which has world-class archaeological sites, pristine Red Sea beaches and volcanoes, hopes to double the more than eight million foreign visitors expected this year, the vast majority of them pilgrims, by 2020.
The crown prince said that Saudi Arabia would not only be open to new businesses and foreign investment but also to tourism “on a selected basis”.
He added that he hoped that investment in tourism would jump by £5 billion to £35 billion. Access to Mecca, the holiest city in Islam, is denied to non-Muslims, and it is likely that that restriction would continue.
However, other attractions include several other Unesco World Heritage sites, such as prehistoric rock art and the ancient monumental buildings of Mada’in Saleh, which were hewn from solid rock by the Nabataeans, the civilisation that built Petra in Jordan.
This summer the crown prince announced that the country would open a beach resort where women would be allowed to wear bikinis. Last week he revealed plans for a $500 billion coastal city with hotels, driverless cars and robots.
At present foreigners who are not attending the haj have to go through a complicated process to enter the country. A single-entry visitor’s visa starts from the equivalent of £400.
It is not clear if the new tourist visas will also allow a relaxation of the rules for female visitors, who are subject to the country’s strict religious laws. All women, whether they are Saudi or foreign, are required to wear the abaya, a loose-fitting black robe, in public. They must also be met by a male sponsor on arrival and are discouraged from travelling around on their own.
However, Saudi Arabia has recently announced sweeping social reforms spearheaded by the young crown prince, who last week pledged to create a “moderate” country. Women have been allowed to drive and enter sports stadiums for the first time. A ban on cinemas and mixed-gender celebrations is also expected to be lifted.
A pilot tourism programme ran between 2006 and 2010 and attracted about 25,000 visitors annually. The idea resurfaced in 2014 but was scrapped after a backlash from powerful clerics.
Source – The Times