Saudi Arabia will relax visa rules to allow foreigners to visit certain Islamic and historical sites as tourists, the country’s most senior tourism official said.
Prince Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, said that from this year Saudi would issue ‘Umrah-Plus’ visas, which would permit supervised tours of other sites to those visiting the country on Islamic pilgrimages.
The conservative Gulf kingdom, which is home to Islam’s two holiest mosques, currently does not issue tourist visas to travellers.
“The month long visa can also be used for tourism,” Prince Sultan said on the sidelines of an event in Dubai. “What changed is that we’re now moving to Islamic history sites to revive those to make them more presentable and to create museums and experiences.”
Prince Sultan added that the Saudi government was investing “a lot of money” in building and renovating about 30 museums and Islam-themed attractions in Makkah and Medinah.
“There’s a lot of heritage hotels now being constructed in small villages with mud and stone, or whatever. We’re serious about reigniting the heritage of Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Last year the country saw tourism revenues rise 10% to SR61.8bn, the majority of which is derived from Islamic pilgrimages and visitors from other GCC nations, who do not require visas.
Prince Sultan said that tourism was also a major contributor to the country’s efforts to increase employment among Saudi nationals. “Tourism is the second most Saudiazed economic sector, with 28%. That’s big for a sector that is new and has not yet been fully supported,” he added. “We’re serious about making tourism a major player in the economy and also in job creation, and keeping Saudis in Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi Arabia is spending billions on developing new and existing transport infrastructure. Work is currently being undertaken on 27 airports across the country to increase their capacity to 82m passengers within the next three years, Prince Sultan said.
He also hoped that the country would be able to emulate some of Dubai’s success in becoming an East to West travel hub. “People can stop, perform Umrah, and connect from Madinah or from Makkah. We also connect from airports like Riyadh, and Ha’il and Jizan for cargo and support,” he said. “We have the added advantage of the location of Saudi Arabia, the accessability of Saudi Arabia, the airports, the abundance of fuel, and the services.”