RIYADH – Saudi Arabia has announced late Friday (Sept 27) details of its new tourist visa scheme for travellers from 49 countries, a historic move for the ultraconservative country as it seeks to attract foreign tourists and diversify its oil-reliant economy.
In Asia Pacific so far, citizens of Australia, Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan are eligible for the visa, with more nations expected to be added. Other countries include France, Germany, Italy, South Africa, Spain and the United States.
The new one-year, multiple-entry visa scheme enables tourists to visit solely for the purpose of tourism. Previously, visitors were issued visas for specific reasons such as Muslim religious pilgrimages, to visit family or for business.
The kingdom is also lifting its strict dress code for female travellers, which previously stipulated women to wear all-covering black robes, or abayas. They are, however, still required to dress with their shoulders and knees covered, including at public beaches.
The Muslim kingdom is seeking to grow its international and domestic visits to 100 million a year by 2030 and help contribute a larger share of 10% of gross domestic product (GDP) from the current 3%.
The visas will be available online for about US$80, without restrictions for unaccompanied women as in the past. It will offer restricted access to Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
For the launch of its new visa, the country is highlighting five UNESCO World Heritage sites, contemporary art sites and natural beauties including the Red Sea, desert and mountains.
Visitors from 49 eligible countries will be able to apply for the tourist visas online or on arrival at airport visa kiosks, while those from other countries will have to apply via Saudi consulates or embassies before travel.
Plans to admit significant numbers of leisure tourists have been discussed for years, only to be blocked by conservative opinion and bureaucracy. An e-visa for sporting events and concerts was introduced last December.