Saudi Arabia to issue tourist visas 'soon'

Muslim pilgrims taking photos at Mount Al-Noor near the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Aside from the millions who travel to the kingdom for the haj pilgrimage, most visitors now face a tedious visa process and exorbitant fees.
Muslim pilgrims taking photos at Mount Al-Noor near the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Aside from the millions who travel to the kingdom for the haj pilgrimage, most visitors now face a tedious visa process and exorbitant fees.PHOTO: REUTERS

Move to woo more visitors is part of push to cut dependence on oil

RIYADH • Saudi Arabia plans to start issuing tourist visas "soon", the authorities said, as the ultra-conservative kingdom seeks to attract international visitors in a radical overhaul of its oil-dependent economy.

Tourism is seen as a major driver of growth as the kingdom attempts to wean itself off its dependence on petro-dollars amid a protracted oil slump.

"Tourist visas will be introduced soon," Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz, head of the Saudi tourism authority, was quoted as saying in a statement on Tuesday. He did not specify a time frame.

Aside from millions of Muslims who travel to Saudi Arabia for the annual haj pilgrimage, most visitors currently face a tedious visa process and exorbitant fees to enter the kingdom.

Prince Sultan's comment comes ahead of Saudi Arabia's first archaeology convention in Riyadh next week as the government seeks to showcase some of its historic sites.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in August announced a massive tourism project to turn 50 islands and a string of sites on the Red Sea into luxury resorts.

Although richly endowed with natural beauty, the kingdom is hardly seen as a tourism hot spot. Alcohol, cinemas and theatres are still banned in the kingdom, an absolute monarchy and one of the world's most conservative countries.

But the authorities in recent months have sought to project a moderate image with a string of reforms, including the decision allowing women to drive from next June.

Although richly endowed with natural beauty, the kingdom is hardly seen as a tourism hot spot...

But the authorities in recent months have sought to project a moderate image with a string of reforms, including the decision allowing women to drive from next June.

The kingdom is also expected to lift a public ban on cinemas and has encouraged mixed-gender celebrations - something seldom seen before.

The moves appear designed to project the kingdom in a favourable light as it seeks to attract badly needed foreign investment.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 02, 2017, with the headline 'Saudi Arabia to issue tourist visas 'soon''. Print Edition | Subscribe