Singaporeans can now explore Saudi Arabia with a new tourist visa that the kingdom introduced on Friday for 49 countries, in a significant move to open its borders to international visitors.
In another first, female travellers no longer have to wear the all-covering black robes or abayas. However, they are still expected to dress modestly.
Leisure travellers can discover long-hidden treasures, now that the kingdom is fortifying its tourism sector under a royal mandate to move away from oil dependency.
Saudi Arabia is not just scorched desert. It has a surprisingly diverse profile for travellers, from its Red Sea coast to snow-covered Tabuk peaks to five Unesco World Heritage Sites.
Prominent among these is Al Ula, the unsung “Petra” that rivals the archaeological wonder of its neighbour Jordan. Al Ula is being unveiled in the days ahead to foreign media.
Among multiple investors, leading hotel brand Aman will develop three properties at Al Ula, including a tented camp.
Across the country, a series of “giga-projects” are being built, such as the futuristic city of Neom that will cost US$500 billion (S$690 billion), and an eco luxury haven by the Red Sea.
Mr John Pagano, chief executive of The Red Sea Development Company, told The Sunday Times: “Saudi Arabia has an abundance of riches that it can share with the world.”
He is struck by the “optimism and enthusiasm” of Saudis in supercharging tourism. This is key to the Middle East nation’s paradigm shift away from an oil-focused economy and an ultra-conservative image.
Its vulnerability to oil shocks was underlined two weeks ago when drone attacks targeted critical oil facilities, halving the world’s top oil exporter’s output.
Travellers to Saudi Arabia can now get one-year, multiple-entry visas that allow them to spend up to 90 days in the country.
Visas can be obtained online, on arrival, or from embassies and consulates. They cost 440 riyal (S$160).
The 49 countries include the US, France, China and Malaysia. More nations will be added later.
Foreigners travelling to Saudi Arabia have until now been largely restricted to resident workers and their dependants, business travellers and Muslim pilgrims with special visas to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
The drive for leisure tourism revenue flows from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 initiative to diversify the biggest Arab economy.
Launching the visa regime at an immersive multimedia event at Ad Diriyah, the original seat of the ruling Saud family, Tourism Minister Ahmad al-Khateeb said on Friday night: “Saudi Arabia is opening. We are opening our economy. We are opening our society.
“Now we open our home and open our hearts to guests from around the world.”
The kingdom aims to lift tourism from 3 per cent to 10 per cent of gross domestic product by 2030.