RIYADH: Saudi Arabia may be one of the most influential countries in the Middle East but to date it rarely registers on most holidaymakers’ wish lists. That may be about to change, however, after it announced plans to introduce tourist visas for the first time.
The country has been preparing to become a tourist destination for some time and recently announced it would give out visas to tourists, in addition to business travellers, pilgrims and those visiting family members.
Speaking to CNN Money’s Richard Quest, Prince Sultan bin Salman, head of the Saudi tourism and national heritage commission, said: “The targets are people who want to literally experience this country and the grandness of this country.”
The prince said Saudi Arabia intends to issue its first tourist visas in 2018 as it tries to reduce its reliance on oil.
Saudi Arabia is aiming for 30 million visitors a year by 2030 (a sharp rise from 2016 figures of 18 million), while the country also intends to spend approximately £35bn on annual tourism by 2020.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has hinted at a new era of openness in Saudi Arabia.
The wealthy nation is planning to convert 50 Red Sea islands into luxury beach resorts and has ambitious plans to build an ‘entertainment city’ to rival Las Vegas, while billionaire Richard Branson is also set to invest in the country’s tourism drive.
Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (second in power only to his father, the king), has been on a charm offensive in recent months, promoting Saudi Arabia’s potential and declaring that it will return to a form of ‘moderate, open Islam’.
He has promised to crack down on extremism and corruption as well as introducing social reforms, such as an end to the country’s infamous driving ban on women. The ban was finally lifted in September by royal decree, though other restrictions on what women can do in Saudi society remain in place.
Saudi Arabia still enforces strict Islamic rules on dress codes and gender segregation, though the Crown Prince’s reforms may see this change. Public cinemas and theatres are also banned, another restriction which may need to be lifted if the country is to attract foreign tourists.