JEDDAH| SAUDI ARABIA – Saudi Arabia’s embryonic efforts to turn the kingdom into a magnet for holidaymakers attracted 50,000 visitors since the September launch, and almost three times that number applied for tourists visas officials hope will diversify and oil-dependent economy.
British tourists, followed by Chinese, were the top visitors, Ahmed Al-Khateeb, chairman of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, said in an interview in Riyadh. About 140,000 people requested tourist visas, he said.
The numbers are “in line with our expectation”, Al-Khateeb, a key adviser to Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, said Wednesday. “We are expecting that the adventurous will come first to explore the country, and is what is happening”.
He spoke on the sidelines of an event to launch a $17 billion project called Diriyah Gate, a revamp of the historic hometown of the Saudi royal family that officials want to be a major draw for tourists.
Until September, Saudi Arabia had been one of the hardest countries in the world to visit, issuing visas only for business trips, religious pilgrimage or family gatherings. But the government’s now delivering on a pledge made in 2016 to allow tourism as the oil-price rout wreaked havoc on finances and triggered Prince Mohammed’s plan to overhaul the economy.
To attract visitors, officials have significantly loosened some social restrictions, dropping a requirement that foreign women wear floor-length robes in public and allowing foreign, unmarried couples to share hotel rooms.
The kingdom “will continue our reforms,” Al-Khateeb said, but he didn’t expect a ban on alcohol consumption to be eased.
“I don’t see it happening” , he said. “When we promote our tourism, we’re promoting the history, the heritage, the culture and I believe we have enough offerings to our guests.”