Saudis welcome the world: ‘We’re not just oil traders’

Prince Sultan bin Salman
Prince Sultan bin Salman

Prince Sultan bin Salman

:: Saudi Arabia will begin issuing tourist visas in the first quarter of 2018, its top tourism official said, a first for the Kingdom as it undergoes major economic and social reforms.

Prince Sultan bin Salman told AFP that “all government approvals” are in place for the launch of electronic visas next year to “all nationals whose countries allow their citizens to visit” the Gulf state.

“We are now just preparing the regulations — who is eligible for the visas and how to obtain them,” added the head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH).

The move to open up its tourism sector is a major shift for Saudi Arabia as powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman seeks to radically overhaul the country’s oil-dependent economy and shed its ultra-conservative image.

Apart from the millions of Muslims who travel to Saudi Arabia annually for the Hajj pilgrimage, most visitors face an arduous process and steep fees.

Prince Sultan said the cost of the new tourist visa had not yet been settled, but stressed that it would be “as low as possible, because we believe the cumulative economic impact is greater than the cash from the visa.”

In recent months, Saudi Arabia has broken with some of its rules — lifting a cinema ban, and announcing that women will be allowed to drive from next June.

“The Kingdom is a very big treasure. People know it only in the narrowest possible terms,” Prince Sultan said, describing the vast country’s mountains, beaches and hundreds of islands along the Red Sea coast.

“We’re not just oil traders,” he added, an outlook in line with that of the crown prince who is working to revamp perceptions of the Kingdom.

There will be “guidelines” for the tourism sector, however. “We do not want to lose or give up our culture and our local values,” said Prince Sultan.

“We are the country of the Two Holy Mosques, the country of Islam, and this enormous advantage cannot be relinquished… for the sake of driving up tourism figures,” he said.

Tourists are coming to get “the Saudi experience,” Prince Sultan said, adding: “There is a limit, as in any other country… and we do not want tourism to come at any price.”

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