Saudi Arabia will start issuing tourist visas from Saturday as part of its bid to diversify its economy away from oil dependence.
Ahmad Al-Khatib, chairman of the board of directors of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, said the electronic tourist visa will be issued within seven minutes and the beneficiaries will include tourists from 49 countries.
The cost for a multiple re-entry tourist visa will be SR440 (£95) for one year and tourists will be allowed to stay in the Kingdom for a maximum of 90 days during the year.
Women, unaccompanied by male relatives, will be allowed to perform Umrah through this visa, although there is no need for the applicant to mention his/her religion while applying for the visa. However, non-Muslims will not be allowed to visit Makkah and Madinah and the ban on alcohol will be maintained.
Visas have until now largely been restricted to pilgrims, business people and expatriate workers. But Saudi Arabia is now hoping to secure foreign investment in the tourism industry. It wants tourism to rise from 3% to 10% of gross domestic product by 2030.
“Visitors will be surprised… by the treasures we have to share – five Unesco World Heritage Sites, a vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty. We have a culture. We believe our friends and our guests will respect the culture, but definitely it is modest and it will be very clear,” Mr Al-Khatib said.
The moves to open up tourism is central to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s wider economic reform programme that aims to reduce the kingdom’s focus on oil.
Under the plan, Saudi Arabia wants to increase international and domestic visits to 100 million a year by 2030. The government expects to create one million tourism jobs.
In 2017 Saudi Arabia announced a massive tourism development project that will turn 50 islands and other sites on the Red Sea into luxury resorts. Last year construction began on Qiddiya “entertainment city” near Riyadh, which is to include high-end theme parks, motor sport facilities and a safari area.