Saudi Arabia today launched its new tourist visa, inviting a wider range of foreigners to visit the country in an effort to diversify the country's economy.
In what Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb called an "historic moment", the kingdom's new visa system offers access to tourists from 49 countries and calls on foreign companies to invest in the sector which it hopes will contribute ten per cent of its GDP by 2030.
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The move marks a sharp contrast to the country's previous visa system, which only issued travel permits for a limited number of purposes including pilgrimage, business and for expatriate workers and their families. It is among a myriad of other changes to the laws and social customs in the kingdom, such as ruling that female visitors do not have to wear the abaya – black traditional cloak – while in the country but must remain modest in their dress.
Saudi has also recently relaxed laws on concerts, launching the Jeddah Festival which saw international artists playing to large crowds in the coastal city.
Al-Khateeb said, however, that alcohol remains banned throughout the country, but "we will have enough tourists to come to Saudi Arabia to enjoy other things."
When asked about the negative perceptions of the kingdom around the world, Al-Khateeb said: "I'm very, very sure they will have a better judgment when they come and experience the life here in Saudi Arabia, and I promise them they will leave with great memories."
"We remain authentic," he added. "We have a great culture where many, many tourists would love to come and explore this culture and learn more about it and see it and experience it."
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The Gulf state, which is home to five UNESCO World Heritage Sites as well as vast areas of desert, mountains and beaches, hopes to add one million jobs to the Saudi tourist industry through the initiative.
Plans to reform the visa system and admit foreign tourists have been discussed within the kingdom for years, but were stalled due to the significant conservative opinion and bureaucracy. It was developed a step further last September when an e-visa was introduced for sporting events and concerts.
The visa reform, as well as the other reforms that have come with it, were introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as part of his Vision 2030, which aims to modernise the kingdom and diversify its economy away from limited natural resources like oil and towards a more sustainable economy. Al-Khateeb estimated that for the kingdom to reach its aim, it would need around 250 billion riyals ($67 billion) in investments.
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