Saudis rush to take advantage as travel ban is lifted

Kingdom imposed a ban on citizens leaving more than a year ago to contain Covid-19 infections

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Saudi citizens thronged airports and the causeway to Bahrain on Monday after authorities lifted a ban on international travel imposed last year to contain coronavirus infections in the kingdom.

Many Saudis opted to drive to Bahrain, creating long lines of vehicles at the immigration checkpoints on the King Fahd Causeway where they were required to show proof of their health status before entering.

Authorities said all adults who have received both doses of the vaccine, or one dose at least 14 days before the date of departure, as well as those who have recovered from Covid-19 in the past six months, can come and go from the kingdom by air, land and sea.

Saudis who are under 18 are allowed to travel as well, although travellers to Bahrain must be over 18, according to an update reported by the official Saudi Press Agency on Monday, citing an interior ministry official.

The travel ban remains in place for Libya, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Iran, Turkey, Armenia, Somalia, Democratic Congo, Afghanistan, Venezuela, Belarus, India and "any other country that is yet to control the pandemic" or where variants of the coronavirus are prevalent, the official told SPA.

The kingdom closed its borders in March 2020, allowing only those with special permits were allowed to enter or leave.

Saudis were jubilant as the end of the ban approached.

“I can’t wait to board a plane and go to my first destination,” said Yousef Al Sudais, a travel influencer.

Mr Al Sudais, 34, said the end of the ban made it feel as though he was travelling for the first time again.

"Even though I'm used to travelling a lot – because it is my job – this time feels different. I'm so excited I don't think I will sleep till my flight,' he said.

"I keep checking my bags and documents to see if I missed anything.”

Mr Al Sudais said he visited 25 countries in 2019, but only six in 2020 before the travel ban came into effect.

He said he was so excited about travelling again that he had decided not to book a return flight. "It is an open-ended trip," he said.

Mr Al Sudais plans to go to all of the countries that are open to tourists, including the UAE: “My first destination will be the Maldives, then Dubai, then Cyprus.”

The travel influencer said that people like him had a duty to show others how tourism and travel are possible despite the pandemic.

"I feel it is a responsibility for us travel bloggers to show how things are on the ground – what measures are in place in each country, and what the travel experience is like during this period."

Khalid Al Awaad also made plans to travel as soon as the ban ended. The 26-year-old is going to his favourite city, Dubai.

"The last destination I was in during March 2020 was actually Dubai,” he said. “I was supposed to stay for a week, then they announced the closure of the border and my six-day trip was shortened to two days. I'm going now to make up for last year.”

Although Mr Al Awaad is excited, he still has some concerns.

"I have got to say it is a risk to travel now, and I do have some concerns, but I took both shots of the vaccine and I will take all the measures to stay safe, and I advise everyone to do the same.”

For many people, the end of the travel ban means they can visit family living abroad for the first time in more than a year.

Doha Khalid, 59, will also be among the first to travel. She is heading to UAE on Friday to see her daughter and three grandchildren who live in Dubai.

"This is the longest period that I haven't seen the kids for, I miss them so much," she said.

Some 385 international flights are scheduled to depart from nine airports across the kingdom on Monday. The first flight to leave King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh was bound for Sarajevo, SPA reported.

"All measures are in place to assure the traveller's safety at the airports," the Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation spokesperson Ibrahim Alrwosa told The National.

International flights can now take off from Saudi Arabia. Wikimedia

“Social-distancing measures will be actively in place at all airports, and only those that have Tawakkalna app will be allowed in the airport," he added, referring to a government app used to access public places during the pandemic.

Before departure, the national airline Saudia requires travellers to obtain a negative PCR test result certificate from an accredited Covid-19 testing centre in the country.

Laboratories licensed to issue certificates for travel purposes are listed on the Public Health Authority (Weqaya) website, with more details available through the 937 helpline.