Tourism to Saudi Arabia is set to receive a massive boost from next month as the country unveils plans to issue mass tourism visas. The 30-day entry visas will be available to citizens of all eligible countries and will be open to single women who will be able to travel around without a male guardian.
Previously, most visitors to Saudi Arabia were Muslims visiting to perform the annual Haj pilgrimage, or those on business trips. Tourist visas were only issued on an intermittent basis, and only for select group tours. It was particularly difficult for young single women to visit the kingdom.
While the date is not set in stone, the visa scheme is believed to come into effect in April.
The National spoke to several tourism operators in Saudi Arabia on Monday, however, they were unable to provide the exact date tourists would be able to start applying for the visa. It was also unclear what the process would entail.
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Trips from the UAE to its largest neighbour are set to soar, as dozens of low-cost flight routes already exist with Flydubai, Emirates, Etihad and Saudia among others, with a flying time to the capital Riyadh of just two hours. Presently, much of the tourism between the two countries consists of Saudi tourists travelling to Dubai.
Tourist sites include the spectacular Nabatean city of Madein Saleh, the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, the historic Al Hejaz Railway station in Medina, Dir'aiyah, the ancestral home of the Al Saud family and Mamsak Fortress, a Unesco World Heritage Site. At over two million square kilometres in area, Saudi Arabia is one of the world's biggest countries and by far the biggest in the Arabian Peninsula.
Flydubai currently operates flights to 13 points in Saudi; Emirates flies to four, and Etihad four.
Saudi Arabia unveiled its plans to court tourists to the kingdom in December 2017.
At the time, Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz said "all government approvals" were in place for the launch of electronic visas in 2018 to "all nationals whose countries allow their citizens to visit" Saudi Arabia.
The proposal to issue the visas was outlined in a report for the Arabian Travel Market (ATM) 2018, to be held at the Dubai World Trade Centre from April 22-25.
It highlighted the kingdom's target of 30 million visitors annually by 2030, and announced its intent to allow women older than 24 to visit the country without a male guardian.
Women tourists below that age will still need to be accompanied by a family member.
The kingdom has announced several leisure projects in recent months, including a Six Flags-style theme park in Riyadh to be built by 2021, and a much-publicised Red Sea resort backed by Virgin Group founder and serial entrepreneur Richard Branson.
Saudi Arabia is busy readying itself for the influx of new visitors, with the opening of 30,000 rooms in 2017, and a further 40,020 guestrooms in 89 projects still under construction.