Saudi Arabia threw open its doors to foreign tourists on Friday, launching a new visa regime for 49 countries and appealing to foreign companies to invest in a sector it hopes will contribute 10% of gross domestic product by 2030.
Tourism chief Ahmed al-Khateeb told Reuters in an interview ahead of the official announcement that abayas will not be mandatory but modest dress covering shoulders and knees is, including at public beaches.
He indicated that alcohol remains banned: “We will have enough tourists to come to Saudi Arabia to enjoy other things.”
Visas are now available online, on arrival or at Saudi diplomatic missions for about $120 including a health insurance fee, according to a press kit. Outbound countries include the United States, Russia, China, Japan and many European states, with more to be added later.
Visas allow multiple entries and stays of up to 3 months. There are no restrictions for unaccompanied women as in the past, and Muslims can perform pilgrimage outside of haj season, the press kit said.
Until now, foreigners travelling to Saudi Arabia have been largely restricted to resident workers and their dependents, business travellers, and Muslim pilgrims who are given special visas to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
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.
The move is part of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious plans to develop new industries to wean the world’s top oil exporter off crude and open up society including by introducing previously banned entertainment.