Riyadh: Saudi Arabian authorities have taken a major step in the process of opening the ultra-conservative kingdom to the world, making tourist visas available to citizens of dozens of nations and relaxing the dress code for female visitors.
The Web site of Saudi Arabia's immigration authority on Thursday said the new electronic tourist visas can be requested starting Saturday, with an initial list of source countries including the United States, the European Union's Schengen Area, Australia, Japan, South Korea, South Africa, Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan, Efe news reported.
"Historically, Saudi Arabia has been one of the most difficult countries to visit," the site said Friday, adding that the "new eVisa marks the beginning of a new chapter for the country, opening up tourism ... in the birthplace of Islam."
Ahmad al-Khatib, chairman of the board of directors of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, said it will take just seven minutes to complete the Saudi Arabia eVisa application.
He publicly announced the kingdom's decision, saying the tourism visas will cost 440 riyals ($117), be valid for one year and allow multiple entries and a maximum 90-day stay for each separate visit.
Al-Khatib said female foreign visitors to Saudi Arabia, a country with a very conservative dress code where women frequently cover themselves from head to toe, will not be required to wear a body-shrouding abaya robe but must dress "modestly."
The Saudi government expects to attract 64 million visitors a year by 2022 and 100 million annually by 2030.
Visa applicants will not be required to indicate their religion, although non-Muslims will be barred from visiting the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
The official said a tourism development fund will be established with a view to meeting the targets of the Saudi Vision 2030 comprehensive development program, which is aimed at reducing the kingdom's dependence on oil.
The new tourism measures complement other steps taken in recent months that allow the entry of foreigners interested in living and investing in the country.
In an earlier move to diversify the kingdom's economy, Saudi officials made special e-visas for sporting events or concerts available to foreign tourists last December.
Saudi Arabia hosted a Formula E auto race last year, while the 2020 Dakar Rally will be held on the kingdom's sand dunes. International recording artists such as Enrique Iglesias, David Guetta and The Black Eyed Peas also have performed in concert before large crowds in recent months.
In May, the Council of Ministers of Saudi Arabia also approved a new "special residency" program for skilled foreigners that allows successful applicants to move freely and own property and replaced an old system that required ex-pats to have a Saudi sponsor or employer.
All of these projects form part of the Saudi Vision 2030 program.
Among other things, that plan calls for promoting projects such as Neom - a $500 billion futuristic mega-city that is to be built on the Red Sea coast - and investing in development projects.
But these and other measures, such as a recent decree granting women the right to drive, have not meant a let-up in Saudi Arabia's efforts to clamp down on internal dissent.
Dozens of rights activists are currently jailed in the kingdom, including three recipients of the 2018 Right Livelihood Award (promoted as an "Alternative Nobel Prize"): Abdullah al-Hamid, Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani and Waleed Abu al-Khair.
And despite the lifting of the female driving ban, some women's rights advocates who pushed for an end to that restriction are currently behind bars.
The latest tourism measure also comes just days before the one-year anniversary of the murder of Saudi government critic and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul, a crime that the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings, Agnes Callamard, found was "overseen, planned and endorsed by high-level (Saudi) officials."