Saudi Arabia, which last issued tourist visas in 2010 and has discouraged most visits except for business and religious pilgrimage, has now decided to go after tourism in a big way, in a bid to diversify its oil-based economy.
The move is being pushed by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has shaken up other areas of the kingdom's economy as well. Plans for tourism include development of 50 Red Sea islands as luxury resorts and the upgrading of facilities at historic sites, with the kingdom's cities as another draw. The resort areas, away from conservative Saudi society, will operate “on par with international standards,” meaning that western visitors will have access to alcohol and be able to wear western-style beach gear.
But despite preparing an electronic visa system that will go into effect April 1st, it's not all smooth sailing. Aside from issues of Saudi Arabia's human rights record and its ongoing war against Yemen, there are issues involving the role of women, who until recently were not allowed even to drive. The new visa rules, for instance, allow solo women over 25 to get a 30-day visa; women under 25 must be accompanied by a male family member.
Photo: Mosque of Mohammed, Medina (Noumenon/Wikimedia)