Saudi Arabia to open up for tourists next year

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The Kingdom aims to start issuing tourist visas to foreigners next year, a senior Saudi official told CNN, as the government seeks to find new sources of revenue to diversify its economy.

At present, foreigners traveling to Saudi Arabia are largely restricted to resident workers and their dependents, business travelers, and Muslim pilgrims who are given special visas to travel to holy sites.

“The targets are people who want to come and literally experience this country, and really the grandness of this country,” Prince Sultan Bin Salman, head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Natural Heritage, said in an interview broadcast late on Wednesday.

Asked about plans for the visas, he replied: “Hopefully in 2018,” adding that the government would use online technology to make applying for visas easy.

Crown Prince Muhammed Bin Salman, deputy premier and minister of defense, is seeking to develop new industries to wean his country off its dependency on oil exports.

Plans to admit significant numbers of tourists from abroad have been discussed for years; the commission announced such a plan as long ago as 2006, but it did not go ahead.

This time, the government appears determined to push through the change, partly because of financial pressures. It hopes to earn billions of dollars to cover a state budget deficit caused by low oil prices.

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Economic reforms aim to lift total tourism spending in the country — by local citizens as well as foreigners — to $46.6 billion in 2020 from $27.9 billion in 2015.

Prince Sultan said his commission was focusing mainly on increasing numbers of local tourists. The commission has estimated Saudis spend more than $20 billion annually on tourism abroad, and persuading more of them to holiday inside the country would reduce that drain on the economy.

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But Prince Sultan told CNN that his commission was also working to prepare tourist spots for foreigners. The government announced plans in August to develop resorts on about 50 islands off the Red Sea coast, with the first phase of the project to be completed in 2022.

The Kingdom also intends to offer visits to historic sites such as Mada’in Saleh, a 2,000-year-old Nabatean city carved into the rocks of the northern desert.

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