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Saudi Arabia to issue first tourist visas in 2018

Currently, travellers can enter Saudi Arabia on transit and difficult-to-obtain two week visas [Getty]

Date of publication: 23 November, 2017

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Saudi Arabia is set to begin issuing tourist visas in 2018, part of the powerful crown prince's plans to open up the secluded kingdom to foreign investors.
Saudi Arabia is set to begin issuing tourist visas in 2018, its tourism chief said, part of the powerful crown prince's plans to open up the secluded kingdom to foreign investors, as well as reduce the state's reliance on petrodollars.

Currently, travellers can enter Saudi Arabia on transit and limited two week visas, but these are difficult to obtain and extremely expensive, putting them out of reach of most tourists.

The kingdom, which welcomes millions of Muslims pilgrims to Mecca each year, is now gearing up to attract holidaymakers, Prince Sultan bin Salman, head of the Saudi tourism and national heritage commission, told CNNMoney.

"The targets are people who want to literally experience this country and the grandness of this country," he said.

However the visas will only be obtainable through government-authorised tour operators, Saudi newspaper al-Watan reported last month.

Attracting tourists is a central plank of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman's vision to reduce the country's reliance on oil.

The plan aims for 30 million visitors a year by 2030, up from 18 million in 2016, and it wants annual tourism spending to hit $47 billion by 2020.

Several ambitious projects have already been announced to attract tourists, including a luxurious Red Sea resort the size of Belgium, and a Six Flags theme park.

Riyadh has also gone to great efforts to promote historical sites such as the Nabatean desert complex of Madain Saleh to international markets.

The Red Sea project, which caught the eye of billionaire investor Richard Branson, is also a sign the ultra-conservative kingdom could ease strict rules applied elsewhere in Saudi Arabia, including its Islamic dress code and gender segregation, in a bid to attract foreigners.

However security concerns could potentially be off-putting. On Tuesday the US State Department warned Americans "to carefully consider the risks of travel to Saudi Arabia," citing threats from terrorist groups such as the Islamic State group and missile attacks from Yemeni rebels on civilian targets.

"Terrorist threats persist throughout Saudi Arabia, including in major cities such as Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dhahran, and attacks can occur without warning anywhere in the country," the State Department said.

There are also currently few entertainment attractions such as public cinemas and theatres. The kingdom hosted its first music concert this year, but only men were allowed to attend.

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