Saudi Arabia is opening its doors to widescale tourism for the first time.
The kingdom is set to announce details of a new visa regime at a gala event at the Unesco-listed Ad-Diriyah in Riyadh on Friday night. Specific details about the visas have so far been scarce, but it is expected that tourists could be eligible to enter the kingdom from this month.
It is understood the new e-visa or visa on arrival services will be extended to 49 countries, including the UK, US, Canada and Australia.
Spokespeople for the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage have also teased a second big reveal on Friday, saying there would be an announcement of a "significant commitment of private sector investment".
Ahmad Al-Khateeb, chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, said of the impending announcement: “Opening Saudi Arabia to international tourists is a historic moment for our country. Generous hospitality is at the heart of Arabian culture and we look forward to showing our guests a very warm welcome."
He said tourists would be "surprised and delighted by the treasures we have to share", which include five Unesco World Heritage Sites, breathtaking natural beauty and a vibrant local culture.
"To visitors we say: be among the first to discover and explore the treasures of Arabia. To investors we say: become part of the fastest growing tourism sector on Earth.”
Saudi Arabia first unveiled its plans to welcome tourists to the kingdom in December 2017, but in the years since, there had been little news – until recently.
Last week, a slick new tourism campaign for the kingdom was launched, with a stunning video making the rounds on social media.
Previously, most visitors to Saudi Arabia were Muslims visiting to perform the annual Hajj pilgrimage, or those on business trips. Tourist visas were only issued on an intermittent basis, and only for select group tours. It was particularly difficult for single women to visit the kingdom.
Opening Saudi to tourism is a key milestone in the implementation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030, which seeks to diversify the country’s economy and reduce its dependence on oil. Saudi Arabia expects to increase international and domestic visits to 100 million per year by 2030, attracting significant foreign and domestic investment, and creating one million jobs.
By 2030, the aim is for tourism to contribute up to 10 per cent towards the Saudi GDP, compared to 3 per cent today.
Billions of dollars are currently being spent to improve infrastructure and develop heritage, cultural and entertainment sites. Saudi’s airport capacity is expected to increase by 150 million passengers per year, and an additional 500,000 hotel key cards will be needed across the country over the coming decade.
The country is set to put its diverse landscapes on show in the coming months as it opens up to the world: the green mountains of Asir, the crystal waters of the Red Sea, the snow-covered winter plains of Tabuk and the shifting sands of the Empty Quarter are expected to be important tourist draws.
A number of new tourist destinations are currently under construction, too, including the futuristic city of Neom, the Qiddiya entertainment city near Riyadh and a range of luxury destinations by the Red Sea.
Ahead of the tourist visa launch, check out our pick of the top 10 sites to see in Saudi Arabia below: