Saudi Arabia gets ready to open up to foreign tourists

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By Patrick Smith  with NBC News World News
Image: Streets of the old city Diriyah near Ar Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Ara
Streets of the old city Diriyah near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.   -   Copyright  swisshippo

LONDON — Saudi Arabia looks set to announce details of a tourist visa scheme on Friday, as part of a major drive to attract foreign visitors as it presses on with efforts to transform its economy and the way the world sees the insular Gulf monarchy.

"It will change the perception, they have to come and see us, they have to come and see the Saudis and live in Saudi Arabia and experience Saudi Arabia," Ahmad Al-Khateeb, chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, told CNBC ahead of an announcement event reportedly planned for Friday night. "It's a very huge, big country, with great people."

Currently only citizens of surrounding states, those on Islamic pilgrimages or business trips can apply for visas to the absolute monarchy. Some 18 million Muslims a year visit for religious purposes, chiefly the Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages, and Saudi Arabia wants to increase this figure to 30 million.

Windows and doors in the old city in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Windows and doors in the old city in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.RahulDsilva

The move is part of sweeping plans to ween the Middle East's largest economy off of oil and transform one of the world's most conservative societies, which was launched by its de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The kingdom wants tourism to represent 10 percent of the economy by 2030, from its current 3 percent, according to the sameplans which were launched in 2016.

The Saudi government hopes that inviting visitors to attractions such as five UNESCO World Heritage sites will greatly increase the number of non-Muslim tourists too, Al-Khateeb said.

The government is also looking to emulate the success of the neighboring United Arab Emirates, which has transformed Dubai into a major destination for Western holidaymakers. Dubai was the world's number one city in terms of money spent by overnight visitors last year, more than $30 billion in total, according toresearch by Mastercard.

Speaking to Reuters, Al-Khateeb confirmed that foreign women will not be expected to wear the traditional abaya robe which is mandatory for Saudi women, as long as their dress is "modest."

A new promotional video highlights the spectacle the country has offer, as its voiceover says: "Get your visa now."

The move comes at a sensitive time for the country. Earlier this month an oil processing plant and an oilfield in the country were hit bymissile strikes, an attack the U.S. blamed on Iran. Yemeni Houthi rebels, backed by Saudi Arabia's arch-rival Iran, claimed responsibility for the attack. Iran hasdenied involvement.

Next week also marks one year since the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. In June a U.N. investigator's report found there was "credible evidence" that high-level Saudi officials could be liable for his death. The CIA and other foreign intelligence agencies have also concluded that Prince Mohammed ordered the killingof Khashoggi.

Al-Khateeb said the Khashoggi case was "being dealt with by the authorities," adding that inward investment had not declined as a result of the scandal.

Jim O'Brien, owner of U.K. travel company Native Eye, which alreadyorganizes non-religious tours of Saudi Arabia using business visas, told NBC News: "The tourist visa not being available is a massive discouragement because you can only travel there on a business visa, which isn't viable for most people.

"It's never going to have a massive appeal, but it will appeal to those interested in exploring traditional cultures and somewhere that's very different. Some are put off by news reports, but some people think that makes it an exciting place."

He added, however, that Saudi Arabia has previously hinted at allowing tourist visas before failing to introduce them.

American investors and businesses have already moved to benefit from Saudi Arabia's tourism drive. Six Flags is building a theme park at Qiddiya, a leisure and entertainment destination 24 miles from Riyadh that was announced in 2017.

A huge luxury tourism development covering 17,000 square miles is being built along country's Red Sea coast.