Fancy a holiday in the desert? Saudi Arabia to officially launch tourist visas in April

Cape Town - The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia expects to begin the process of issuing its first official tourist visas in April 2018.

Traditionally, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has not been seen as a first choice holiday destination. The kingdom has a deeply conservative, patriarchal and orthodox Islamic culture that is prohibitive to many potential travellers. International visitors to the country have usually been granted access by qualifying their visitation as being for the purpose of either business or religious pilgrimage. That is all about to change, as the Kingdom, under the direction of the increasingly influential Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud, proceeds along its journey of economic and social reform and modernisation outlined in what is called Vision 2030.

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Part of the social reforms spearheaded by the Mohammad Bin Salman can be seen today. Saudi women now enjoy some freedom that only a few years ago would have been almost inconceivable. By royal decree, Saudi women are now able to drive cars and licenses may be issued to women. This change has taken place in the context of a broader strategic plan to take Saudi Arabia into a post-oil future.

At present, the Saudi economy is dominated by the proceeds of the energy industry according to the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), with oil and gas accounting for 50% of gross domestic product (GDP) and 85% of export earnings. Saudi Arabia is thus emulating what has been done in the Emirates and Gulf states more generally, by seeking to diversify their sources of income beyond oil revenues. Tourism is one such sector earmarked as having enormous potential to offset the potential losses in revenue as oil reserves dry up and the world moves towards renewable and sustainable forms of energy. This model of diversification has shown results in Dubai, Doha and other renowned gulf economies.

Saudi Arabia seeks to make similar adjustments but faces an uphill battle as its unique social context could impede the extent of potential successes of these initiatives. In this context, the announcement and imminent provision of tourist visas is a step in the right direction. Religious visitors know the Kingdom to be the custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, but due to the cloistered nature of Saudi Arabia, tourist sites are not as widely known.

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Before you start packing, the tourist visas for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are likely to come with conditions. The details are yet to be finalised but these conditions are likely to include having a minimum requirement of four guests travelling, as well as having bookings being made through a registered tour operator. Non-Muslim visitors will continue to be forbidden to enter Mecca and Medina. Female travellers should also be wary as conservative attitudes are likely to persist and are cautioned to dress conservatively and, where possible, be accompanied by a male guardian or chaperone. 

Despite this, Saudi Arabia has a wide variety of unique destinations, from desert landscapes and sacred sites of worship to Red Sea oases, that make a trip to the country a worthy consideration for those seeking out the unconventional. The carved rose-coloured sandstone mountains at the site of al-Hijr, near the north-western town of al-Ula are an awe-inspiring monument of human craftsmanship.

For a brief respite from the desert landscape, visitors should consider heading to the coastal town of Yanbu. Located on the Red Sea this location has picturesque white sandy beaches and has plenty of resorts and family-friendly locations.

Near the city of Tabuk, visitors will find the ancient Tabuk Castle and the Hisma Mountain range. Another potential must-see location in Saudi Arabia is ad-Dir’iyah. This area includes the UNESCO site in the at-Turaif location which was the ancient seat and capital of the first Saudi dynasty from the mid 18th to early 19th centuries.