THE KINGDOM IS OPEN

Saudi Arabia 2017 | TOURISM | FOCUS: VISA LIBERALIZATION

In line with the Vision 2030 and National Transformation Plan, Saudi Arabia is relaxing its visa regime in hopes of attracting more tourists and foreign investment.

It was not so long ago that Saudi Arabia had the reputation for being one of the most closed, secretive nations in the world. Negative foreign media portrayal, in addition to an unhurried approach to reform from within, had contributed to an economy blossoming with sector-wide opportunities, yet hidden behind a veil of misconception.

It is precisely these issues that the launch of Vision 2030 in early 2016 aimed to address. A broad-based set of reforms intended to accelerate the pace of privatization and economic diversification meant that the Kingdom was, officially, open for business. But open for business also means open for travelers, and that meant liberalizing Saudi's long-time restrictive visa regime.

Step one was to improve efficiency in existing procedures, explains HRH Prince Saud bin Khalid Al Faisal, the Governor of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA). Spearheaded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and SAGIA, the Kingdom adopted a new mechanism for granting business visas in 2017. Effective January 1, the new measures will expedite online applications for investors to just 24 hours. Specifically, these have been divided into three categories: commercial visas to visit a facility operating in the Kingdom, commercial visit visas for businessmen, and commercial visit visas for commercial delegations.

In an exclusive interview with TBY, Prince Saud explained that this initiative is part of a wider Competitiveness Acceleration Program that coordinates with 52 different entities to improve the local investment climate. “SAGIA's CAP team works on over 200 points to improve the investment climate, be it from a procedural or regulatory aspect. The pace is rapid, with the team quickly and closely engaging with different government entities to reengineer processes. We are benchmarking our approach against global best practices, using around 300 global indicators. All this work has produced clear results. Recently, the Kingdom announced an application system to issue electronic business visas within 24 hours. Investors can expect much more going forward.”
Another crucial aspect to the reforms has to do with pricing. In a bid to increase private participation in the visa process, the Ministry of Commerce and Investment announced a series of new rate hikes in late 2016. All tourists—business and religious (not including Hajj and Umrah pilgrims)—will have to pay SAR2,000 for a single entry visa, SAR3,000 for a six-month multiple entry visa, and SAR5,000 for a year-long one.

To complement this, the Government announced it would start issuing foreigners visas for up to two years (while the previous limit was one year) at a cost of SAR8,000. According to the Commerce Minister, Majed Al Qassabi, the new fees would not deter foreign direct investment (FDI) in the Kingdom, which is actively easing procedures for foreign business in an effort to attract “quality investment.” Perhaps a strong indicator for this is the decision by the Ministry that these price changes will not apply to applicants from the US or the European Union, while fees for British nationals will only increase slightly.

These reforms, of course, fall under goals underlined by the National Transformation Program (NTP 2020) and the Vision 2030, which has identified tourism as a key, untapped driver for the Saudi economy. As outlined by the Vision 2030 blueprint, “In the tourism and leisure sectors, we will create attractions that are of the highest international standards, improve visa issuance procedures for visitors, and prepare and develop our historical and heritage sites.” According to data from the World Travel and Tourism Council, this push by the government is expected to boost the local tourism sector (encompassing both domestic and foreign travel) to USD81 billion by 2026.