Authorities in Saudi Arabia will from next month relax visa restrictions in order to attract more overseas visitors to the kingdom’s tourist and historical sites.

From December 4, Saudi will launch its ‘Extended Umrah Tourism Programme’, which will allow foreign nationals travelling to the country for Islamic pilgrimage to stay for a longer period.

Prince Sultan bin Salman, head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), said that passport holders of 65 countries were eligible for the scheme, Saudi Gazette reported. He did not specify which countries were applicable, but it is understood that the extended visa will last 30 days. “The Umrah visa will be converted into a tourist visa after its expiry,” he commented.

Saudi Arabia does not currently issue tourist visas to visitors from any country, although GCC nationals are given visa-free entry.

Speaking to Arabian Business at an event in Dubai earlier this year, Prince Sultan said that tourism revenues in the Arab Gulf’s biggest nation rose 10 percent to SR61.8bn ($16.5bn), although the vast majority of this is derived from Islamic pilgrimages to the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah.

“The month long visa can also be used for tourism,” Prince Sultan said at the time. “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 Madinah. “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.

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 Saudized economic sector, with 28 percent. 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.”

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