Saudi Arabia opens it doors to foreign tourists

Sunrise at Al Khobar Corniche Mosque, Saudi Arabia
Sunrise at Al Khobar Corniche Mosque, Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia threw open its doors to foreign tourists in late September, launching a new visa regime for 49 countries and appealing to foreign companies to invest in a sector it hopes will contribute 10 per cent of gross domestic product by 2030.

The Interior Ministry decision accompanies the launch of a visa regime allowing holidaymakers from 49 states, including Australia, to visit one of the world's most closed-off countries. Till now, most visitors have been Muslim pilgrims and business people.

Visas are now available online, on arrival or at Saudi diplomatic missions for about $120 including a health insurance fee, according to a press kit. Outbound countries include the US, Russia, China, Japan and many European states, with more to be added later.

Visas allow multiple entries and stays of up to three months. There are no restrictions for unaccompanied women as in the past, and Muslims can perform pilgrimage outside of haj season, the press kit said.

Saudi Arabia said it would issue fines for 19 offences related to public decency, such as immodest dress and public displays of affection, as the Muslim kingdom opens up to foreign tourists.

Violations listed on the new visa website also include littering, spitting, queue jumping, taking photographs and videos of people without permission and playing music at prayer times. Fines range from 50 riyals ($13) to 6,000 riyals ($1600).

"The regulations are meant to ensure that visitors and tourists in the kingdom are aware of the law relating to public behaviour so that they comply with it," a government media statement said.

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia landscape at night

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia landscape at night

It said Saudi police had the sole responsibility for monitoring offences and imposing fines, a comment that appeared to marginalise the kingdom's religious anti-vice squads whose authority to pursue suspects or make arrests was curbed in 2016.

The religious force, known as the mutawa, used to ensure people prayed five times a day in line with Muslim teachings and that women covered their heads. They also enforced bans on music, alcohol, gender-mixing and women driving cars.

Tourism chief Ahmed al-Khateeb told Reuters that abayas will not be mandatory but modest dress covering shoulders and knees is, including at public beaches.

He indicated that alcohol remains banned: "We will have enough tourists to come to Saudi Arabia to enjoy other things."

But the ban on women driving has been lifted and public entertainment, including once banned cinemas, has flourished. Many restaurants and cafes have removed physical barriers separating genders and no longer stop serving customers at prayer times.

Some women now wear more colourful abayas, the loose fitting robes worn over their clothes that are usually black, or no longer wear the robes at all.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has spearheaded the social opening and reforms to diversify the economy away from oil, said last year that women in Saudi Arabia did not need to wear a headcover or abaya as long as they dressed respectfully.

The changes have been viewed at home and abroad as proof of a progressive trend, although constraints remain and there have been no moves towards opening up a system that has kept the ruling Al Saud family firmly in control of political power.

The authorities have detained women's rights activists for the past year amid a broader crackdown on dissent. The crown prince's image abroad has also been tarnished by last year's murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom's Istanbul consulate, and a devastating war in Yemen.

The Gulf country, which shares borders with Iraq to the north and Yemen to the south, boasts vast tracts of desert but also verdant mountains, pristine beaches and historical sites including five UNESCO World Heritage Sites.