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article imageSaudis welcome the world: 'We're not just oil traders'

By Rania Sanjar and Abdul Hadi Habtor (AFP)     Dec 19, 2017 in Travel

Saudi Arabia will begin issuing tourist visas in the first quarter of 2018, its top tourism official said, a first for the kingdom as it undergoes major economic and social reforms.

Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz told AFP that "all government approvals" are in place for the launch of electronic visas next year to "all nationals whose countries allow their citizens to visit" the Gulf state.

"We are now just preparing the regulations -- who is eligible for the visas and how to obtain them," added the head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, who is a son of King Salman.

The move to open up its tourism sector is a major shift for Saudi Arabia as powerful Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman seeks to radically overhaul the country's oil-dependent economy and shed its ultra-conservative image.

Head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage  Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaz...
Head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, speaks during an interview with AFP at the commission's headquarters in Riyadh, on December 18, 2017

Apart from the millions of Muslims who travel to Saudi Arabia annually for the hajj pilgrimage, most visitors face an arduous process and steep fees.

Saudi Arabia currently grants tourist visas for a limited number of countries, but even those applications involve a range of restrictions, including requirements to travel through an accredited company and stay at designated hotels.

Prince Sultan said the cost of the new tourist visa had not yet been settled, but stressed that it would be "as low as possible, because we believe the cumulative economic impact is greater than the cash from the visa".

Saudi Arabia, despite being richly endowed with natural beauty, is notorious worldwide for its long-standing bans on the mixing of the sexes, alcohol consumption and women driving -- making it an undesirable destination for many.

- 'Not at any price' -

A traditional house in Hail  some 700 kilometres (435 miles) north of Riyadh. The city is known for ...
A traditional house in Hail, some 700 kilometres (435 miles) north of Riyadh. The city is known for its old forts and historic structures

In recent months, it has broken with some of its most rigid rules -- lifting a cinema ban, allowing genders to mix at a national celebration and announcing that women will be allowed to drive from next June.

Prince Mohammed in August announced a massive tourism project to turn 50 islands and a string of sites on the Red Sea into luxury resorts.

"The kingdom is a very big treasure. People know it only in the narrowest possible terms," Prince Sultan said, describing the vast country's mountains, beaches and hundreds of islands along the Red Sea coast.

"We're not just oil traders," he added, an outlook in line with that of the powerful crown prince who is working to revamp perceptions of the kingdom.

There will be "guidelines" for the tourism sector, however.

"We do not want to lose or give up our culture and our local values," said Prince Sultan.

The old gate of Masmak  the historic palace of King Abdul Aziz Bin Saud  the first king of Saudi Ara...
The old gate of Masmak, the historic palace of King Abdul Aziz Bin Saud, the first king of Saudi Arabia

The kingdom, which takes legitimacy from the guardianship of Islam's holiest sites -- as well as billions of dollars in revenues from annual Muslim pilgrimages -- will not be lifting its total ban on alcohol.

"We are the country of the Two Holy Mosques, the country of Islam, and this enormous advantage cannot be relinquished... for the sake of driving up tourism figures," he said.

Tourists are coming to get "the Saudi experience", Prince Sultan said, adding: "There is a limit, as in any other country... and we do not want tourism to come at any price."

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