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Saudi Arabia Will Start Issuing Tourist Visas for the First Time Ever

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Some of the first non-religious tours of Saudi Arabia will include stops at the archaeological site of Mada’in Salah.

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Some of the first non-religious tours of Saudi Arabia will include stops at the archaeological site of Mada’in Salah.

The conservative Middle Eastern kingdom will offer tourist visas in a push to lessen its dependence on the oil industry.

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Just a month after Saudi Arabia loosened restrictions and began allowing Saudi women to apply for passports and travel independently, the Middle Eastern kingdom announced on Friday that it will begin to issue e-visas to foreign travelers, the New York Times reports.

Previously, Saudi Arabia was only open to business travelers, expatriates, and Muslims visiting Mecca for the hajj and umrah pilgrimages. But as of September 28, the kingdom will allow tourists from 49 countries, including the United States, Canada, most European countries, and China, to enter the country for stays up to three months. The e-visa website says travelers from countries not included on the list should contact the nearest Saudi Arabian embassy for further information.

Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, is responsible for introducing the visa program as part of an effort to diversify the country’s economy so that it is not as dependent on its oil industry in the future.

The announcement comes just weeks after drones attacked crucial oil sites in Saudi Arabia and shortly before the one-year anniversary of the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist who was critical of the government.

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To apply for an e-visa, residents of the 49 countries included in the program can go to visa.visitsaudi.com to register. (The site lists the eligible countries.) According to the website, decisions should be made in 30 minutes and visitors can also apply at a kiosk at major airports once they land in Saudi Arabia. The visa, which also includes a health insurance fee, will cost around $120, the Wall Street Journal reports. A single-entry visa allows for stays as long as one month, and a multiple-entry visa permits stays up to three months.

Non-Muslim tourists will still not be allowed to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, but plenty of other sites will be open to visitors. Adventure tour operators GeoEx and Wild Frontiers are two of the first companies to offer trips to Saudi Arabia.

GeoEx’s 13-day “Kingdom at a Crossroads” tour includes visits to the cities of Jeddah and Riyadh, a four-by-four tour of the red dunes at Wadi Hesma, the "Wadi Rum of Saudi Arabia," and several of the country’s UNESCO World Heritage Sights. The Wild Frontiers tour, which will launch on its website on September 30, will include stops at the archaeological site of Mada’in Salah and the Sarawat Mountains near the Yemen border.

UNESCO added Jeddah's historic center to its World Heritage List in 2014.
Despite loosening its visa restrictions, foreign travelers will still be expected to follow Saudi laws and traditions. Alcohol will remain completely illegal within Saudi Arabia, and visitors should expect to find shops and many businesses closed during the call to prayer that happens five times a day. 

While tourism chief Ahmed Al-Khateeb told Reuters that female tourists won’t be expected to wear the traditional long body-length dress called an abaya, visitors will need to dress conservatively and wear clothes that cover their shoulders and knees.

So far, the government has not clarified if there will be fines or punishments for any tourist who breaks these rules. In 2018, Saudi women were finally permitted to drive cars, but it is also unclear if female tourists will be allowed to rent and drive cars alone. 

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