Saudi Arabia is opening its doors to international visitors for the first time.
The conservative Middle Eastern kingdom has unveiled plans for a new visa regime for 49 countries, while also relaxing strict dresscodes for female visitors.
The plans were unveiled at a gala event at Ad-Diriyah, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Riyadh.
Saudi tourism minister, Ahmad al-Khateeb, described it as a “historic moment” for the country.
Visas have until now largely been restricted to pilgrims, business travellers and expatriate workers.
It is part of a wider move by the country to reduce its dependence on oil under the Vision 2030 banner.
Officials in Saudi Arabia said the country wants tourism to rise from three to ten per cent of gross domestic product by 2030.
“Visitors will be surprised by the treasures we have to share – five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a vibrant local culture and breathtakingly natural beauty,” al-Khateeb added.
Attractions include Madain Saleh in Al-Ula, the largest conserved site of the Nabataean civilisation, the At-Turaif District in Ad-Diriyah, the first capital of the Saudi state, and historic Jeddah.
Also on offer is the rock art in the Hail Region, which depicts 10,000-year old inscriptions of human and animal figures, and the Al-Ahsa Oasis, the largest oasis in the world.
There are also a number of industry leading properties on offer, including the Al Faisaliah Hotel, recognised as the Middle East’s Leading Luxury Suites Hotel by voters at the World Travel Awards, and the Ritz-Carlton, Jeddah, acknowledged as Saudi Arabia’s Leading Conference Hotel.
Under the new rules, foreign female visitors will not be required to wear the body-covering abaya robe required to be worn in public by Saudi women.
They must, however, still maintain modest dress.
There will also be no restrictions on unaccompanied women visiting the country.
“We believe our friends and our guests will respect the culture, but definitely it is modest, and it will be very clear,” al-Khateeb added.
Non-Muslims will still not be allowed to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and the ban on alcohol will be maintained.
Tourism minister, Ahmad al-Khateeb, is seeking to lead a transformation of the sector in Saudi Arabia
The move to open up tourism is central to crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s wider economic reform programme that aims to reduce the kingdom’s focus on oil.
Under the plan, Saudi Arabia wants to increase international and domestic visits to 100 million a year by 2030.
The government expects to create one million tourism jobs.
In 2017 Saudi Arabia announced a massive tourism development project that will turn 50 islands and other sites on the Red Sea into luxury resorts.
The Red Sea Development Project is a closed joint-stock company wholly owned by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia.
It was established to drive the development of the Red Sea Project, a luxury tourism destination that will set new standards in sustainable development and position Saudi Arabia on the global tourism map.
The project will be developed over 28,000 km2 of pristine land on Saudi Arabia’s west coast and includes a vast archipelago of more than 90 islands.
The destination also features mountain canyons, dormant volcanoes and ancient cultural and heritage sites.
The destination will include hotels, residential properties, leisure, commercial and entertainment amenities, as well as supporting infrastructure that emphasises renewable energy and water conservation and re-use.
Activity for the first phase of development, which focuses on enabling the infrastructure to support future work, is well underway.