- Citizens of 49 countries, including members of the European Union, the United States, China, and Japan, may access the visa through a website.
- Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman included tourism among the pillars of its 2030 Vision, an economic reform program that aims to reduce dependence on oil.
- During the past year, four major events attracted 9,000 foreign visitors to the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has taken a new step in its opening to the world with the presentation of a tourist visa this Friday. The measure, which makes the relatively-closed country more accessible, constitutes one of the pillars of reform promoted by the heir and de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. In addition to contributing to diversifying the economy, the authorities expect tourism to help improve the international reputation of the Kingdom.
Citizens of 49 countries, including members of the European Union, the United States, China, and Japan, may access the visa through a website. The system promises to respond in 24 hours. The permit will authorize a stay of up to 90 days and will cost $80 (about €73). The goal is to attract 1.5 million visitors a year.
Despite flirting with the idea for ten years, the desert Kingdom lacked tourist visas. One could only enter with a business or an invitation from the State, except citizens of neighboring Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. Qatar was excluded after the diplomatic crisis two years ago. These states have free access to Saudi Arabia with their national identity document. In addition, Muslims from the rest of the world receive special visas for the pilgrimage to Mecca.
The Crown Prince included tourism among the pillars of its 2030 Vision, an economic reform program that aims to reduce dependence on oil. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, by that date leisure and tourism will reach 10.4% of the Gross Domestic Product (compared to the current 9%), which is equivalent to adding $100 billion annually to the economy.
The attack on oil facilities, and the subsequent increase in tensions with Iran have cast a shadow on the appointment, scheduled several months earlier. “We are not going to get into a war, this does not mean we are afraid, but it makes no sense because it would force us to stop all the projects we have in our hands,” says a local tourist entrepreneur. The Yemen War, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, or the human rights situation also weigh on potential investors and visitors.
Even so, tourism is gaining momentum within the kingdom. During the past year, four major events (the Formula E race, the Camel Festival, an Italian football Super Cup match and the Tantora festival) attracted 9,000 foreign visitors, with whom the electronic visa was tested.
The expectations of greater openness have already encouraged more Saudi entrepreneurs to invest in small businesses. In addition, the authorities have formed a small army of tour guides who show journalists and other guests the treasures of Saudi Arabia. They urgently train a generation of new guides, including many women.
The first officially accredited tour guide, a Jeddah resident named Samir, has bought two small stores in the city by the Red Sea. “I’m going to open a restaurant and a cafeteria,” he explains proudly, as he tries out to provide services to prospective foreign clients.