Saudi Visas, Yes. Head Covers, No
Ahmad al-Khatib, chairman of Saudi Arabia’s General Authority for Tourism and National Heritage, unveils the new e-visa program in Riyadh on September 27. (Tom Dulat/Getty Images)

Saudi Visas, Yes. Head Covers, No

E-visa policy implemented on September 28 not yet open to nationals from Arab countries

During a September 27 ceremony in Riyadh organized by the kingdom’s General Authority for Tourism and National Heritage to commemorate World Tourism Day, Saudi Arabia announced an e-visa service for tourists from 49 countries.

The service, which took effect the next day, covers tourists from the United States and Canada in addition to those from key countries in Europe, Asia and Oceania, who can now apply for visas online from home. (A full list of these countries can be found below.)

Not included in the program as begun on September 28 are Arab countries or countries with majority Muslim populations, save for Malaysia. Citizens of countries not on the list still have to apply for visas in person at Saudi embassies or consulates.

During the event to announce the new program, Ahmad al-Khatib, chairman of the General Authority, said: “We welcome businessmen and women to invest in tourism. We have hundreds of thousands of Saudi students who have studied abroad and returned. We welcome different cultures and religions.”

In attendance at the event were Zurab Polo Kashifeli, president of the World Tourism Organization, and Gloria Guevara, president of the World Travel and Tourism Council.

Al-Khatib stressed that the decision came as part of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 initiative, which aims to diversify the Saudi economy, making it less dependent on oil. A central part of Vision 2030 is for Saudi women to work across a broad spectrum of industries as opposed to being limited to such sectors as education.

Moreover, he pointed out that under Vision 2030, the kingdom had already undergone tremendous change, including the launch of major tourism projects and incentives for investment in the sector.

Khaled Batrefe, a professor of social studies at Al-Faysal University in Riyadh, told The Media Line that the new policy was aimed at raising the spirit of cultural exchange and openness in the kingdom, as well as providing job opportunities for young people in tourism and supporting sectors.

“The decision will increase the numbers of international and local tourists to one million visitors per year by 2030,” Batrefe said.

What’s more, the roster of nations covered under the e-visa program could grow.

“Discussions are underway with a new group of countries to include them on the e-visa list,” he said.

As part of the new policy, foreign women will not be obligated to wear the abaya, a long, loose garment covering the whole body from head to foot that is worn by women in many Muslim countries, although they will be asked to dress conservatively. The government said it will publish a dress code.

A look at Twitter shows both support and some derision for the new initiative.

Philippe Le Saux tweeted: “History is made. Saudi Arabia’s Tourist Visa is OFFICIALLY launched! This country has so much to offer, so much beauty to be explored!”

But responding to a tweet by Visit Saudi calling the country a “place beyond seasons,” Florian Neuhof tweeted “Or: A place without reasons (to go there)….”

Mohammed al-Sbagh, a Saudi analyst and former senior economic advisor to the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources, told The Media Line that while Vision 2030 covers all economic sectors that can generate increased income for the country, tourism is central.

“The tourism sector is one of the most important axes in Vision 2030. It will help increase the ratio of total revenues to the Saudi gross national product,” he said.

Sbagh says that Saudi Arabia is rich in archaeological sites.

“The land of Arabia is a land of different civilizations besides Mecca and Medina, which bring about 40 million pilgrims per year.”

He added that there were also “resorts being built on the shore of the Red Sea to meet the needs of tourists.”

Suliman al-Ogaily, a member of the board of directors of the Saudi Society for Political Science, insists that the new decision marks a major shift by opening a tourist window into Saudi Arabia.

“The policy will have significant economic, cultural and social implications in the first place,” he told The Media Line. “In terms of the economy, it will [also] strengthen the kingdom’s plans to diversify its sources of income and create jobs.”

The countries so far included under Riyadh’s new e-visa program are Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Bulgaria, Canada, China, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lichtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malaysia, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Ukraine, United Kingdom and the United States.

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