In a historic move, Saudi Arabia has opened its doors to international tourists for the first time with plans to grant tourist visas for visitors from 49 countries.
The kingdom will also ease its strict dress code for foreign women, allowing them to go without the abaya robe that is still mandatory public wear for Saudi women, said an Arab News report quoting Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) chief Ahmed Al-Khateeb.
Foreign women, however, will be required to wear “modest clothing,” he added.
Saudi Arabia boasts a diverse range of landscapes, including the green mountains of Asir, the crystal waters of the Red Sea, the snow-covered winter plains of Tabuk and the shifting sands of the Empty Quarter.
A number of new tourist destinations are currently under construction, including the futuristic city of NEOM, the Qiddiya entertainment city near Riyadh and a range of luxury destinations by the Red Sea.
Opening Saudi to tourism is a key milestone in the implementation of Vision 2030, which seeks to diversify the country's economy and reduce its dependence on oil.
Saudi Arabia expects to increase international and domestic visits to 100 million a year by 2030, attracting significant foreign and domestic investment and creating a million jobs.
By 2030, the aim is for tourism to contribute up to 10% towards the Saudi GDP, compared to just 3% today.
Saudi Arabia's airport capacity is expected to increase by 150 million passengers per annum and an additional 500,000 hotel key cards will be needed across the country over the coming decade.
Al-Khateeb commented: "Opening Saudi Arabia to international tourists is a historic moment for our country. Generous hospitality is at the heart of Arabian culture and we look forward to showing our guests a very warm welcome.
"Visitors will be surprised and delighted by the treasures we have to share. Five Unesco World Heritage Sites, a vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty.
"To visitors we say: be among the first to discover and explore the treasures of Arabia. To investors we say: become part of the fastest growing tourism sector on earth."
Visas so far have been largely restricted to pilgrims, business people and expatriate workers.
Non-Muslims will still not be allowed to visit the holy cities of Makkha and Madinah and the ban on alcohol will be maintained.
Tourists from 38 countries in Europe, seven in Asia, as well as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, will be eligible to apply for the new visas. These will cost SR300 ($80), with an additional cost of SR140 for travel insurance, the report said quoting sources. Visas can be obtained online via a seven-minute application process, or on arrival at machine kiosks or special counters in any of Saudi Arabia’s four international airports.
The visas will be valid for 360 days from the date of issue for stays of 90 days or less, and for a total of no more than 180 days in a single year.
Applications for the tourist visas will commence on September 28 at https://www.saudiarabiavisa.com/
SCTH announced on Thursday that it had established a SR15 billion fund to support tourism projects across the kingdom, reports said.