Kingdom eyes holidaymakers as part of plan to diversify economy away from oil
Fri 27 Sep 2019
Saudi Arabia will begin offering visas on Saturday for the first time to non-religious tourists, days after the country was criticised at the UN for its grim human rights record.
The kingdom – which has imprisoned and tortured women’s rights activists, carries out regular public executions, and was responsible for the high-profile murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Kashoggi – has said it is opening up to holidaymakers as part of a push to diversify its economy away from oil.
The new visa programme for citizens of 49 countries, including the UK and the US, was announced by Saudi tourism officials, quickly followed by a Twitter campaign exhorting users to @VisitSaudiNow.
As part of the scheme, which promises to deliver a visa in seven minutes, female tourists will be exempted from wearing the all-covering abaya robe, but will be required to dress “modestly”.
The Twitter account, which does not appear to accept comments, has so far posted three times, including promoting an image showing rock climbing and one featuring sheep in what appears to be a snow-covered setting.
Getting tourists to visit the austere kingdom, which forbids alcohol and enforces a strict social code, however, is seen by many as a hard sell.
While Saudi Arabia has a relatively well-established hotel and air transit network, serving the millions of Muslim pilgrims who travel to the country to perform the Hajj and Umrah, its new tourism strategy marks a stark departure.
The announcement comes as the country has been on a diplomatic offensive, both to counter criticism of its human rights record and to bolster its proxy conflict with neighbouring Iran, which has been played out largely in Yemen.
The move also prefigures the anticipated acknowledgement by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, in a PBS documentary next week, that he bears responsibility for the killing of Khashoggi last year by Saudi operatives “because it happened under my watch”.
Kickstarting tourism is one of the centrepieces of Prince Mohammed’s Vision 2030 reform programme to prepare the biggest Arab economy for a post-oil era.
“Opening Saudi Arabia to international tourists is a historic moment for our country,” its 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, a vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty.”