WATCH: Western tourists trickle into Saudi Arabia

Western tourists visited this weekend Saudi Arabia under a new visa system, and thousands of fans flocked to Riyadh's historic Diriyah district for Formula E, a motor sports tournament using electric vehicles, and concerts including by David Guetta and Black Eyed Peas.

Most were Saudis still unaccustomed to such entertainment in their own country, where cinemas and public concerts were banned until changes by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the past two years. Westerners also seized the opportunity to visit the country.

An American named Jason is spending a week here with his German wife, riding quad bikes in the desert and visiting heritage sites in Ushaiger, 200 km (120 miles) northwest of the capital.

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"The race sounds interesting but to be honest it was a means to see the country. We're happy to be here," he said. "I've always wanted to come for many, many years... I'm so happy to be here and that they're letting us be here."

Aaron, a 40-year-old software engineer, travelled from New York for two days. He and a few dozen other adventure travelers seeking to visit every country in the world checked the desert kingdom off their list this weekend.

"Saudi Arabia's always been an exotic place... and I didn't think I'd ever be able to come here," he said as circus performers entertained guests in between races.

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Some 1,000 foreigners from 80 countries received the new "sharek" visa, which is linked to a specific entertainment event, the authorities said.

"Hopefully we will learn from this and see what we need to do for the future, but I can tell you from now that there is a lot of demand..." said Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal, vice chairman of the General Sports Authority.

Whizzing electric racecars wound through the ruins of Diriyah, the capital of the first Saudi state built three centuries ago.

The UNESCO world heritage site is undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation, celebrating a telling of national history that puts the dynasty and its clerical allies front and centre.

Plans to admit significant numbers of tourists from abroad have been discussed for years, only to be blocked by conservative opinion and bureaucracy.

Now the crown prince is seeking to develop new industries to wean the world's top oil exporter off petro-dollars.

Tourism is high on the agenda, despite a shortage of infrastructure. Reforms aim to lift total spending - by locals and foreigners - to $46.6 billion in 2020 from $27.9 billion in 2015.

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Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:58 - GMT 06:58
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