Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 31 October 2020

CORONAVIRUS

Saudi Arabia plans to resume tourism visas in early 2021

The kingdom opened its doors to foreign tourists in September 2019 but the industry has been hit by Covid-19 restrictions

Saudi Arabia is set to re-open its tourism industry with plans to resume visas by early 2021 following months of suspension due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the country’s tourism minister said.

"For tourist visa, until now we are talking about early next year. If things get better or if any positive developments happen with regards to the vaccine, we might accelerate and have it earlier," Ahmed Al Khateeb told Reuters in a virtual interview.

The Kingdom closed its borders to foreign visitors from at least 25 countries in late February, followed by a complete ban on travel in and out of the country in March as the number of daily coronavirus cases increased.

The move has hit the tourism sector hard, with a 35 to 45 per cent decline expected by the end of this year, Mr Al Khateeb said.

However, the lifting of lockdown over the summer has allowed the country’s domestic tourism industry to recover, cushioning the blow. "This pandemic is a systematic risk that has hit everyone; however, we have seen a very strong summer after the January-May lockup period," Mr Al Khateeb said.

"We have noticed a growth of 30 per cent year on year in domestic tourism which is beyond our expectations."

Tourism is a key pillar of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's ambitious reform strategy to reduce the economy's dependence on oil.

The kingdom, which opened its doors to foreign tourists in September 2019 by launching a new visa regime for 49 countries, wants the sector to contribute 10 per cent of gross domestic product by 2030.

The Saudi Summer campaign, which promoted 10 tourist destinations – from beaches and forests to mountain peaks and historic areas – for citizens and residents to visit in lieu of holidaying abroad, helped boost average occupancy ratio at hotels to 80 per cent.

The Kingdom has reported 332,790 Covid-19 cases and 4655 deaths so far. Infection rates have seen a steady decline over the past few weeks.

Updated: September 27, 2020 03:57 PM

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