By Victor Gotevbe
Saudi Arabia, a desert country encompassing most of the Arabian Peninsula, with Red Sea and Persian (Arabian) Gulf coastlines. Known as the birthplace of Islam; home to the religion’s 2 most sacred mosques: Masjid al-Haram, in Mecca, destination of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, and Medina’s Masjid an-Nabawi, burial site of the prophet Muhammad, will not only be primarily known for religious pilgrimages -Umrah and Haj as its government has approved plans to start issuing tourist visas for the country to boost its leisure tourism sector.
Saudi Government presently issues visas for business, employment and students as well as visas for personal and family visits. Travel to the country has largely been restricted. This restriction will now be lifted following its approval to commence granting tourist visas, a first for Saudi Arabia.
Saudi tourism is set to accelerate as the ban on women driving was lifted recently. This was nonetheless first announced in December, 2013 on its intention to begin issuing tourist visas for the first time in its history. Council of Ministers entrusted the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities accordingly with visa issuing on the basis of certain regulations approved by the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs.
The new tourism law aims at bringing about a qualitative improvement in the industry, which is expected to play a significant role in strengthening the economy besides creating thousands of jobs for Saudis.
Arab News reported that Jamal Al-Fakhri, a member of the Shoura Council and the executive committee of Tabuk Tourism Development Council, told Al Watan that he hoped Tabuk would become “a destination for tourists in the region.”
He said that the Public Investment Fund (PIF) would help to promote tourism in Saudi Arabia, adding that tourism projects “with further diversify job opportunities” in the Kingdom.
“There are many (potential) tour guides who are multilingual and ready to work in the field after meeting the requirements set by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH),” he continued.
Rustam Al-Kubaisi, head of the SCTH’s Jizan branch, cited the Asir development project, the annual Souk Okaz in Ta’if, and the Farasan Islands as examples of tourism initiatives in the Kingdom, as well as museums and archaeological sites.
“The SCTH has been conducting tourism training workshops for the youth on topics including establishing small tourism projects and methods for increasing safety in tourism establishments,” he said. “This is in addition to raising awareness about the importance of relics, urban heritage and historical buildings.”
He added that the people of Jizan are renowned for their hospitality and are ready to welcome tourists from outside the Kingdom.
The first stage of the rollout, visas will only be available to groups of visitors through authorized tour operators.
Al-Fakhiri said that tourists would be welcome in Jizan, a port city in the kingdom.
In August, Saudi Arabia had announced plans to build a “semi-autonomous” visa-free travel destination along its northwestern Red Sea coast.
The resort area, which is to be developed with assistance from the Public Investment Fund, is tailored towards global luxury travellers and those seeking wellness travel. It was also suggested that the strict religious laws ─ on women’s veils and gender segregation ─ of the kingdom would not apply in the area.
Following the ascent of Mohammed bin Salman ─ the son of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud ─ to the second-most powerful position in Saudi Arabia, a series of changes have occurred in the country.