A KINGDOM FIT FOR TOURISTS

Saudi Arabia 2018-19 | ENTERTAINMENT, CULTURE & SPORTS | FOCUS: TOURIST VISAS

Big changes are coming to Saudi Arabia's tourism industry as the government makes moves to relax visa regulations in 2018.

Early 2018 was the target date for the unveiling of a 30-day tourist visa that is hoped will open up the Kingdom to countless new potential visitors, and in turn, enable hundreds of curious tourists to visit some of the Saudi Arabia's most enticing destinations. Previously, leisure tourists coming to Saudi Arabia had largely been denied entry ever since the limited pilot scheme between 2006 and 2010 ended. More recently, the Kingdom announced that it would start issuing electronic visas on a selected basis—with solo women travelers under the age of 25 being accompanied by a family member for example—beginning April 1, 2018; however, the move was delayed due to bureaucratic complications. There is no clear picture, but authorities say that rules and regulations are now awaiting government approval.

Once fully launched, the new visa scheme is expected to contribute significantly to achieving Saudi Arabia's goal of increasing tourism arrivals. Currently, the industry generates over USD11 billion per year. Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has announced plans to attract 30 million visitors to the country by 2030. Now, hidden treasures, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and the world's holiest cities are some of the key destinations that will start to appear more frequently on travel itineraries. One such plan is to create a tourism hotspot along the Kingdom's Red Sea coastline, until now a relatively unexplored part of Saudi's landscape.

In addition, taking one of the top spots is the Nabatean city of Mada'in Saleh, also known as Hegra. It is the southernmost and largest settlement of the same civilization responsible for the spectacular architecture in Petra, Jordan. At nearly 2,000 years old, the city of Mada'in Saleh is home to more than 100 rock-cut tombs, all with intricate facades and detailed interiors, as well as inscriptions dating to late antiquity.

Mecca and Medina are already the most visited cities in Saudi Arabia, but government officials are eager to boost the numbers. By 2020, there could be up to 15 million umrah pilgrims visiting annually and 30 million by 2030. With the construction of a wide variety of both upscale hotels and budget-friendly accommodations, there will be even more reason to stay in the Holy Cities and take in all that they have to offer. Medina is open to people of all religions, while non-Muslims still may not enter or travel through Mecca on any type of visa.

According to the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH), which will oversee the new regulations, the Tourism Law is just waiting final approval by the government before being enacted, and this should happen in 2018. The speed at which the law will be passed and implemented depends on a multiplicity of factors and judging by the levels of bureaucracy that characterize Saudi's law-making process, it's likely that there will be a few more delays before it fully comes into play.
SCTH has also spoken about how, during the process, it sought input from stakeholders, investors, tourism experts, and operators. This was certainly a necessary involvement, given that the Tourism Law will also govern tour agents and guides, the hospitality sector, and infrastructure providers for tourist destinations.

In addition, plans are afoot for an integrated electronic system processing and monitoring visa transactions, governed by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.

While the exact timing of the introduction of the Tourism Law remains slightly uncertain, one thing is for sure: the current government in Saudi Arabia is hellbent on reforming and modernizing the conservative system in place. This is evident from this year's World Travel and Tourism Council in Buenos Aires, where Prince Sultan bin Salman, the President of SCTH, said that Saudi Arabia would become one of the most attractive countries for tourism because of its location, unique historic elements, and hospitality.