There is going to be a new hot destination in the Middle East. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia will start issuing new tourist visas from April 1. This is the first instance of tourist visas being issued since Saudi Arabia it clamped down on visitors in 2010.
Visitors to the Kingdom, including pilgrims, must acquire visas and permits to enter the country through a complicated process. But the new electronic visas are set to make this process simpler for travelers. Keen on moving away from a dependence on oil, the new Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman wants Saudi to rival neighboring Dubai as a tourist destination. Saudi Arabia may also be trying to fill the opening in the tourism market, as Egypt struggles to convince foreigners that its own Red Sea resorts are safe.
The success of both Dubai and Bahrain have led to Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s ambitious plan to attract 30 million visitors by 2030. This plan includes the development of hotels and luxury residential units, as well as air, land and sea transport hubs. 50 islands on the Red Sea will be part of this development scheduled to start in 2019. The luxury resorts are set to be completed by 2022.
However, the initial draw for tourists will likely be Saudi Arabia’s incredible historic and natural sites. For example, Mada’in Saleh is Nabatean settlement of rock-carved tombs similar to Petra in Jordan but without the crowds. The Sarawat Mountains and the Red Sea are also major draws. The capital city of Riyadh, and and Jeddah, where Jeddah Tower – projected to be the world’s tallest building – is currently under construction, also offer much to explore.
This new commitment to the travel and leisure industry, is supported by members House of Saud, including Prince Sultan bin Salman, head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage. The Crown Prince has said that the country “is open for people that are doing business, for people working in Saudi Arabia, investing in Saudi Arabia, and people who are visiting for special purposes. And now it will be open for tourism again on a selected basis.”
This ‘selected basis’ includes limitations on the availability of visas for women. Solo female travelers over the age of 25 will be able to obtain a 30-day tourist visa, but younger women will need to be accompanied by a family member to enter the country. The strict laws governing women, the religious policies, as well as the ban on alcohol may be a concern for those planning to visit Saudi Arabia.
While strict laws do remain in place across Saudi Arabia, the driving ban for women is set to be eradicated in June of this year, along with the 35 year old ban on cinemas. The Crown Prince has also indicated that the new luxury resorts will be governed by laws “on par with international standards”, though it is not yet clear which of the Kingdom’s strict Islamic laws will be exempt.