The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has witnessed major reforms under the dynamic Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Saudi authorities are set to offer tourist visas for the first time, opening up the ultra-conservative kingdom to holidaymakers as part of a drive to diversify its economy away from oil.
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To make tourism attractive in the ultra-conversative nation, Riyadh will also ease its strict dress code for foreign women, allowing them to go without the body-shrouding abaya robe.
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.
The declaration comes just two weeks after cowardly attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure which was blamed on Iran by the US and Saudi authorities, but rejected by Tehran.
“Opening Saudi Arabia to international tourists is a historic moment for our country,” tourism chief Ahmed al-Khateeb said in a statement. “Visitors will be surprised by the treasures, we have to share — five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty.”
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Saudi Arabia will open applications for online tourist visas to citizens of 49 countries on Saturday, Bloomberg News quoted Khateeb as saying. Khateeb said the kingdom will also ease 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.
Foreign women, however, will be required to wear “modest clothing”, he added, without elaborating. Visas in the desert kingdom, endowed with rich bedouin heritage and archaeological sites, are currently restricted to expat workers, their dependents and Muslim pilgrims travelling to holy sites in Mecca and Medina.
Earlier, Saudi Arabia, last year began issuing temporary visas to visitors to attend sporting and cultural events in a bid to kickstart tourism. However, consumption of alcohol and pork – considered haram in Islamic Traditions will always be forbidden, says an expert on the Middle East.
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Crown Prince, popularly called MBS is attempting to change that through a sweeping liberalisation initiative that has brought new cinemas, mixed-gender concerts and sporting events to Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government, reeling from low oil prices, says it hopes tourism will contribute up to 10% of the gross domestic product by 2030, compared to three per cent currently.
It says by 2030 it aims to attract up to 100 million annual visits by both domestic and foreign tourists. However, the KSA presently lacks the infrastructure to accommodate visitors in such high numbers, with officials estimating 500,000 new hotel rooms will be required nationwide over the coming decade.