For the first time, the conservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has decided to open its doors to non-religious travelers to diversify its economy, just days after the country received some tongue-lashing fromt he United Nations (UN) for their grim take on human rights.
The new visa program is part of the economic reform plan introduced by Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in an effort to lower the kingdom’s dependence on oil.
Bernard Haykel, a scholar at Princeton University who studies the kingdom, seems to agree to the direction the de facto leader is taking. He called the initiative “new” and hinted that it is an addition to an upcoming development to the already growing religious tourism. He also said that “It’s not going to displace oil, but it’s a dent in that direction.”
Saudi made the announcement via “the official tourism account for Saudi Arabia” with the Twitter handle @VisitSaudiNow on September 28th.
The post reads,
— Visit Saudi (@VisitSaudiNow) September 27, 2019
As the new visa program is made available to 49 countries, including the US and the UK, a Twitter campaign followed suit, which urges the people to visit the country.
— Visit Saudi (@VisitSaudiNow) September 27, 2019
The new scheme also promises a few perks including but not limited to half-hour visa approval and an exemption from wearing an all-covering abaya robe for female tourists female tourists. Despite the leniency offered regarding to abaya robes, the ultraconservative Middle Eastern kingdom says they will require the lady visitors to dress “modestly” which meant covering the shoulders and the knees in public.
“The idea is that tourists who are interested in historical sites and visiting the main cities and seeing performances organized by authorities are welcome, but they are not welcome to share knowledge, influence, political thought and analysis,” said Hala Aldosari, a fellow at M.I.T.’s Center for International Studies and an activist from Saudi Arabia.
— Visit Saudi (@VisitSaudiNow) October 27, 2019
The Twitter account, which does not appear to accept comments, has so far posted 170 times since going active on September 27, including promoting images showing activities like rock-climbing, shopping, and food crawls, and a few other interesting spots in the country.
— Visit Saudi (@VisitSaudiNow) October 20, 2019
The announcement of the visa program came just one week before the one-year anniversary of the high end killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Kashoggi, a Saudi-based journalist who was very critical of the government at the time when the kingdom’s treatment of women’s rights activists has garnered international dissent.
Here are a few more details about this new visa program:
Which countries are part of the visa program?
The program will allow people from 49 countries including the United States, Canada, most European countries and China to travel to the kingdom by applying for a visa ahead of their visit or when they arrive in the country.
People from countries that are not included in the visa program are encouraged on the visa application website to contact the Saudi embassy or consulate closest to them.
How do I get a visa?
People from the 49 countries included in the program who are over 18 years old can logon to visa.visitsaudi.com and register and apply for a visa. It can either be done online before the trip or at a kiosk upon arriving in Saudi Arabia with decisions made in half an hour. The visa fee is 440 Saudi riyals ($117), which includes a health insurance fee.
How long is the visa valid?
Single entry visa holder are allowed to stay in the kingdom for a month, while those with multiple entry visas will be allowed for up to three months.
Will the kingdom’s conservative rules apply to tourists?
Despite easing up on the rules of female sartorial preferences, the tourism site also reminded tourists that prayer time happens five times a day and music is turned off in public places while many shops close briefly. During Ramadan, however, while most Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, the reminder for tourists to be as it is respectful to avoid eating or drinking in public during the day.
Alcohol is also still as illegal as drugs, and tourists are also reminded that “public displays of affection are not consistent with local culture” as well as “profane language or gestures.”
The penalty, punishment, or fine for breaking these rules are still unclear but there were instances when visitors to other countries in the Persian Gulf region were imprisoned for misdemeanor like these.
Where will tourists be allowed to go in Saudi Arabia?
Only Muslims will be allowed to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, but the kingdom is promoting its Unesco world heritage sites, including the Mada’in Saleh in Al-Ula, which is the largest conserved site of the civilization of the Nabataeans south of Petra in Jordan, and At-Turaif District in Ad-Diriyah, the first capital of the Saudi state.
— Visit Saudi (@VisitSaudiNow) October 7, 2019
The kingdom is also encouraging people to visit Historic Jeddah, the Gate to Mecca, Al-Ahsa Oasis and the Hail Region, which has 10,000-year old inscriptions of human and animal figures.
— Visit Saudi (@VisitSaudiNow) October 24, 2019
The General Investment Authority and its Commission for Tourism and National Heritage also shared that they have signed development agreements with airlines and hotel and restaurant developers to create tourist-friendly sites and hotels, and a ski slope and snow park, a water park, and several other shopping and entertainment destinations.
— Visit Saudi (@VisitSaudiNow) October 4, 2019
— Visit Saudi (@VisitSaudiNow) October 3, 2019
The World Travel and Tourism Council, a global organization that represents the private sector of the travel and tourism industry, was also comissioned to help push the kingdom to the top five most famous inbound destination by 2030.
Despite all the positive promotions, Aldosari said that the financial cost of visiting as well as the difficulties posed by lack of transport and some other infrastructure may pose problems which will stop tourists from visiting Saudi Arabia.
“Most places in Saudi Arabia are underdeveloped when it comes to infrastructure,” Ms. Aldosari said. “Public restrooms, highways, all these issues can present a challenge for western tourists.”
Haykel, on the other hand, pointed at the kingdom being “a fairly conservative society” as a possible issue. He asked,“How will Saudis take to outsiders with different norms of dress? How are people going to react to that, especially to women who are not modestly dressed? Lots of tensions could arise around westerners who are dressed immoderately.”
Nevertheless, watch as the kingdom of Saudi Arabia opens itself up for more visitors: