Saudi Arabia to offer visa-free access to overseas visitors

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Saudi Arabia is planning to ease the visa process for foreign visitors as part of efforts to diversify its economy and open up the Kingdom to nonreligious tourism.

According to officials, the plan, currently in its early stages, will be finalized in the coming months and rolled out by the end of the year.

Tourism restrictions will be eased for foreign visitors, allowing visitors from the United States, Europe, Japan and China either visa-free access or a visa on arrival to the Kingdom, the Wall Street Journal reported.

So far, the Kingdom has focused its efforts on Muslim pilgrims arriving from across the world in Mecca and Medina.

The inflow of tourists from developed markets is also expected to strengthen the Saudi economy.

The initiative is seen as an important step toward liberalizing the economy, in keeping with Vision 2030 created by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It is aimed at raising total tourism spending in the Kingdom — by local citizens as well as foreigners — to $46.6 billion in 2020 from $27.9 billion in 2015, the government said.

On Thursday, the Saudi cabinet approved electronic tourist visas for overseas visitors seeking to attend sporting events and concerts in the Kingdom.

Under the new move, symbolizing change, officials stated that the visa application can be completed online and only takes a few minutes, without the need to go to an embassy or consulate.

The Kingdom, after nearly four decades, opened cinemas last year. Music concerts and international sporting events soon followed.

A number of tourist attractions are also under development, including Amaala, which is set to become a luxury destination on the northwestern coast.

A mega-theme park is being developed, known as Qiddiyah, an hour’s drive from Riyadh. It expects to attract 1.5 million visitors each year when the first phase opens in 2022.

Last month, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched mega tourism projects in the ancient desert city of Al-Ula. According to the Royal Commission for Al-Ula, the projects are set to rake in a $32 billion increase in the GDP, over two million visitors and 38,000 jobs by 2035.

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