Saudi Arabia will open its doors to international tourists before the end of this year.
The head of the Saudi Tourism and Heritage Authority, Ahmad al-Khatib, made the announcement this week during a meeting of the World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO ) in Russia.
Saudi Arabia’s membership in the executive council of the Organisation for the Middle East region was approved earlier this year, and the kingdom has since provided $1.7 million (Dh6.2 million) to fund cooperation with the UN-backed organisation, according to the Saudi Press Agency.
“Saudi Arabia is proud to be one of the first countries to work with the organisation in the preliminary studies for the Measuring Sustainable Tourism (MST) project,” Khatib said during his speech.
Traditionally, most visitors to Saudi Arabia have been Muslims visiting to perform the annual Haj pilgrimage, or those on business trips. The kingdom did not issue visas for the purpose of tourism alone. Such visas have, until now, only been issued on an intermittent basis, and only for select group tours. In the past, it has been particularly difficult for young single women to visit the kingdom.
Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia played host to a number of concerts and festivals, for which it granted special tourism visas. Artists such as Janet Jackson, Liam Payne and 50 Cent all performed in Jeddah. The instant tourism e-visas were granted in as little as three minutes.
Trips from the UAE to its largest neighbour are set to soar once tourist visas are granted, as dozens of low-cost flight routes already exist with Flydubai, Emirates, Etihad and Saudia among others, with a flying time to the capital Riyadh of just two hours. Presently, much of the tourism between the two countries consists of Saudi tourists travelling to Dubai.
Tourist sites include the spectacular Nabatean city of Madein Saleh, the Red Sea port city of Jeddah, the historic Al Hejaz Railway station in Medina, Dir'aiyah, the ancestral home of the Al Saud family and Mamsak Fortress, a Unesco World Heritage Site. At over two million square kilometres in area, Saudi Arabia is one of the world's biggest countries and by far the biggest in the Arabian Peninsula.