Saudi Arabia to offer tourist visas, abolish abaya rule for foreign women

Kingdom will open online visas to citizens of 49 countries starting Saturday

Afp September 27, 2019
Women in Saudi Arabia are required to wear long black abaya robes and cover their hair in public. Photo: AFP

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia said on Friday it will offer tourist visas for the first time and also ease its strict dress code for foreign women, allowing them to go without the body-shrouding abaya.

Tourism chief Ahmed al-Khateeb said in an interview ahead of the official announcement that foreign women, however, will be required to wear "modest clothing".

Kickstarting tourism is one of the centrepieces of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 reform programme to prepare the biggest Arab economy for a post-oil era.

The announcement comes just two weeks after devastating attacks on Saudi Arabia's oil infrastructure - blamed by Washington on Iran - which roiled global energy markets.

"Opening Saudi Arabia to international tourists is a historic moment for our country," tourism chief Ahmed al-Khateeb said in a statement.

"Visitors will be surprised... by the treasures we have to share - five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty."

Saudi Arabia will open applications for online tourist visas to citizens of 49 countries on Saturday, Bloomberg News quoted Khateeb as saying.

Khateeb said the kingdom will also ease its strict dress code for foreign women, allowing them to go without the body-shrouding abaya robe that is still mandatory public wear for Saudi women.

Foreign women, however, will be required to wear "modest clothing", he added.

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The austere kingdom, which forbids alcohol and has a strict social code, is seen by many as a hard sell for tourists.

Prince Mohammed is seeking to change that through a sweeping liberalisation drive that has brought new cinemas, mixed-gender concerts and sporting extravaganzas to Saudi Arabia.

International criticism of the kingdom's human rights record, including the gruesome murder last year of critic Jamal Khashoggi and a crackdown on female activists, could further put off foreign visitors, observers say.

Fears of a regional conflict after the September 14 attacks on state oil giant Aramco may also dampen the kingdom's appeal to holidaymakers.

Visas are currently restricted to expat workers, their dependents and Muslim pilgrims travelling to holy sites in Mecca and Medina.

Saudi Arabia last year began issuing visas to visitors to attend sporting and cultural events in a bid to kickstart tourism.

The government, reeling from low oil prices, says it hopes tourism will contribute up to 10 per cent of the gross domestic product by 2030, compared to three per cent currently.

It says by 2030 it aims to attract up to 100 million annual visits by both domestic and foreign tourists.

The sector is expected to create up to one million tourism jobs, the government says, as the kingdom battles high youth unemployment.

Saudi Arabia has splurged billions in an attempt to build a tourism industry from scratch.

In 2017, the kingdom announced a multi-billion dollar project to turn 50 islands and other pristine sites on the Red Sea into luxury resorts.

The country is also developing historic sites such as the centuries-old Mada'in Saleh, home to sandstone tombs of the same civilisation which built the Jordanian city of Petra.


Bunny Rabbit | 4 years ago | Reply wow suddenly MBS of KSA has become very open minded . Clearly he has many problems and wants to divert attention from things like Khashoggi's mysterious disappearance .These measures might show KSA in a good light but as long as he has friends in high places like DT he need not worry .
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