Saudi Arabia issues tourist visas for the first time – including for lone women
The desert country boasts some of the world’s most religious sites including the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and Medina’s Masjid an-Nabawi, burial site of the prophet Muhammad.
With plans to create a new tourist hotspot twice the size of Wales, Saudi Arabia has miles of unspoilt coastline on both the Red Sea and Gulf Peninsula.
There are even plans to build an entertainment capital to rival that of Las Vegas.
This deeply conservative nation is hoping to welcome 30 million visitors annually by 2030.
To meet this target, the first tourism visas will be issued to travellers from 1 April 2018, alongside business travellers, pilgrims making religious journeys and people visiting relatives.
For the first time, women aged 25 and above will be issued a 30-day single-entry tourist visa without a male chaperone.
This is a substantial shift from 2006-2010, when the Kingdom largely closed the country to leisure tourists.
The plan to issue new tourist visas was revealed in a new report ahead of the Arabian Travel Market (ATM) 2018 which takes place at the Dubai World Trade Centre from April 22-25.
The change in attitude comes after Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s promises of a “moderate, open Islam.”
Softening the nation’s strictest rules, the Crown Prince was responsible for the recent lifting of the infamous driving ban for women.
In an interview with the Associated Press, the Saudi prince unveiled his plans to welcome tourists as part of the Vision 2030 plan.
He said: “It is open for people that are doing business, for people working in Saudi Arabia, investing in Saudi Arabia and people who are visiting for special purposes. And now it will be open for tourism again on a selected basis.”
In the 2016 interview, Prince Sultan bin Salman made it clear that the country will not be “totally open for everybody to just show up and come in.”
The new plans to attract tourism are surprisingly grand, with big UK investors such as Virgin’s Sir Richard Branson rumoured to be investing in the country’s tourism industry.
There’s also plans to turn 50 Red Sea islands into luxury beach resorts which will not be subject to the conservative kingdom’s rules.
Reforms and investment are set to drive the tourism and hospitality sector over the next five years, with an expectant growth of 13.5 per cent year-on-year by 2022.
Simon Press, Senior Exhibition Director of ATM commented: “Following recent reforms and the relaxation of visa regulations, Saudi Arabia is posted to capitalise on these factors as it nurtures a vibrant leisure and entertainment sector, supported by a new generation of hotels.”
At present, Saudi Arabia welcomes only a handful of Britons every year, mostly for religious tourism.
The Kingdom is known for its strict enforcement of Sharia (Islamic) law including tough laws on drinking alcohol and women interacting with men without a guardian.
Express.co.uk has contacted the Saudi Arabian Embassy for a comment.