Saudi Arabia has announced it will open its doors to international tourists for the first time ever, pledging to provide e-visas and visas on arrival to visitors from 49 countries.
Travel to the Kingdom has until now been almost entirely restricted to expatriate workers or those with business visas, and to religious pilgrims visiting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
That’s about to change, according to a press release issued ahead of a new visa regime expected to be implemented Friday night. Under a new program, Saudi Arabia will welcome overseas visitors outside of the auspices of the Hajj visa. The Kingdom will also relax its strict dress requirement for female visitors, exempting them from wearing the otherwise obligatory head-to-toe robe, or Abaya, in public places and permitting them to travel without a male companion. Tourists will still be required to dress modestly and Mecca remains off-limits for non-Muslims.
The announcement is the latest in a series of measures undertaken by Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman aimed at liberalizing the Saudi economy and reducing its dependence on hydrocarbons. But the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi one year ago and crackdowns on women’s rights campaigners in the country have undermined the Crown Prince’s attempt to cast himself as a modernizing reformer.
Saudi Arabia says it expects to attract 100 million foreign and domestic visitors by 2030 and create 1 million new jobs in the tourism sector. The Chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage invited investors to be part of what he billed as “the fastest growing tourism sector on earth” in another press release that announced $27-billion worth of new agreements in the tourism sector.
The expected visitor numbers are “very ambitious”, says John Sfakianakis, the chief economist at the Gulf Research Center and probably more “guidance” than cast in stone figures. Saudi Arabia’s ability to deliver on its aims will depend on the competitiveness of its tourist offering with those of regional rivals such as Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE, its global connectivity, and the ease of its visa provisioning system, he says. Regional security will also be paramount. “Geopolitical risks will have to stay low as we know all too well from Egypt’s and Turkey’s recent tumultuous past,” Sfakianakis tells TIME.
Among the destinations Saudi Arabia hopes tourists will visit are five UNESCO listed heritage sites including the ancient city of Mada’in, home to the Nabateans before Roman annexation in 106 CE; Riyadh’s Masmak Fortress—which Abdulaziz bin Abdul Rahman bin Faisal Al Saud seized in 1902 before conquering the regions’ disparate tribes and uniting them to form the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; and the world’s largest oasis, which has 2.5 million date palms.
Jim O’Brien, director of the U.K.-based boutique travel company Native Eye, says he hopes the introduction of tourist visas will boost business for his company—which until now has offered tours of Saudi Arabia to foreigners who already have business visas—but he doesn’t expect the Kingdom to experience the sort of overnight boom that happened in Myanmar. “First of all it needs to raise its profile as a possible holiday destination,” says O’Brien. “For years it has been very closed to visitors, so this may take some time.”