An Update On Saudi Arabia’s New Tourist Visas

Call me crazy, but when I woke up this morning, the first thing I thought to myself is “it’s April 1… has Saudi Arabia starting issuing tourist visas yet?!” No, that’s not an April Fools’ joke.

Several months ago Saudi Arabia revealed that for the first time ever they’d begin issuing tourist visas. While the timeline wasn’t initially clear, this was part of Saudi Arabia’s plan to welcome 30 million visitors per year by 2030 (up from 18 million in 2016, a vast majority of which were visitors on a pilgrimage). Furthermore, they hope that by 2020 their tourism spend will hit $47 billion per year. This is part of their attempt to introduce a more “open, moderate Islam,” with some restrictions being relaxed.

Then early last month Prince Sultan bin Salman, head of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, announced that Saudi Arabia would start issuing tourist visas as of April 1, 2018. Not only will it finally be possible to visit Saudi Arabia, but these visas will be issued electronically, which means the process of obtaining a tourist visa should be pretty easy.

Not surprisingly, there seems to be some delay with the introduction of visa issuance, which is pretty normal. The good news is that Saudi Arabia has provided an update. As reported by Saudi Arabia’s Center for International Communication:

The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) has announced that the regulations for tourist visas have been completed and submitted to the State for approval.

“The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage, in cooperation with the Ministries of Interior and Foreign Affairs, has completed tourist visa regulations and submitted them to the State for approval,” SCTH said in a statement.

An SCTH official said an announcement from the Saudi government is expected soon.

Once the regulations are approved, the issuance of tourist visas is expected to have a major impact on the Kingdom’s nascent tourism industry.

SCTH said in a statement that the regulations, under which tourist visas will be issued, were reviewed in a series of meetings and workshops with relevant government institutions. Beyond the governmental review, investors, tourism and transport workers, and groups of beneficiaries and service providers were also given a chance to comment.

SCTH said that it has worked with various state institutions to prepare all arrangements related to the new visas. An integrated electronic system to process and record visa transactions has been developed, under the supervision of a specialized team headed by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology in conjunction with the commission and a number of related entities.

The Commission for Tourism and National Heritage has approved the regulations for tourist visas, and now they’re just waiting on state approval. Hopefully tourist visas will be issued within the coming weeks.

Of course when visiting somewhere new I like to think about the aviation opportunities available. While I’ve flown Saudia first and business class, I’m also fascinated by this from an aviation perspective. I’d love to fly between Jeddah and Riyadh on Saudia’s Al Bayraq service, which is the all business class A319 that they fly 6x daily between the two cities. The A319 has just 48 business class seats, and departs from the private aviation terminals at both airports.

Fares on the service are surprisingly reasonable, at ~$364 one-way (which isn’t cheap, but given what a unique flight it is, seems worthwhile).

As I often say when talking about certain countries, I’m not shy about the fact that I take serious issues with many of Saudi Arabia’s policies, though that’s all the more reason that I’d like to see the country firsthand, so I can draw my own conclusions. That way I can see if any preconceived notions I have about the place are fair or not. The fact that non-religious tourism hasn’t been allowed makes it all the more interesting to me. It’s similar to my interest in visiting Cuba, which I did a bit over a year ago. I take a lot of issues with their government’s policies as well, but I still wanted to see it firsthand.

Here’s to hoping Saudi Arabia starts issuing tourist visas before the heat of the summer!

Comments

  1. I always have mixed feelings about going to these backward places too. There looks to be lots of interesting historic sites around the country. But I’m not sure I’d want to put any more money into the pockets of such a horrible regime. I don’t need to go there to see it “firsthand” to know what they are doing to Yemen (with our support) among other places is a crime against humanity.

  2. Open, moderate Islam? I’d love to know how they define that. I guess letting women drive (with their husband’s permission, as I understand it) is a start.

    Anecdote: a coworker based in Dubai went to Riyadh to talk to a bank about software. A female employee had a question at the end of his presentation. She was in another room I suppose, and they literally stuck her in a walk-in “box,” wheeled her in, and she had to ask the question from inside the box (there was a mesh screen or something near her head). My coworker wasn’t allowed to see her at all, only hear her voice.

  3. I spent an hour and twenty minutes at the bank this morning (I live in Saudi), for something that should have taken only a few minutes. Everything here happens on a delay.

    But to be fair, things are improving. The fact that there was an update is evidence of that. (A couple of years ago I waited two hours to see a bank teller, so things are really speeding up.)

  4. Personally, I don’t wish to do anything to help a government which is built on supporting extremism, has one of the worst records of respecting human rights / due process, is full of corruption, and has been responsible for dragging our country into a >$2.5 trillion war that has bankrupted us. No amount of fascination about an airline or plane would be worth that. I don’t think you need to go there in person to find these things out, Lucky.

  5. I just read some of the other comments and fear this could turn into a round of Saudi bashing. I don’t mind making some jibes cos I live here and happen to enjoy it.

    The majority of Saudis I’ve met in the years I’ve lived here have been lovely people. They also have a terrific sense of humour. Sure they have problems, but I find they’re more candid about them than many countries.

  6. Well, Saudi is a pretty big country, and some parts of it are more open and liberal than others (by Saudi standards, naturally). Jeddah is slightly more relaxed and open than Riyadh, for example. Slightly.

  7. “The Saudi government has approved the regulations for tourist visas, and now they’re just waiting on state approval. ”
    So the government has approved but the state not?

  8. @ Radu — Sorry, that wasn’t clear, so I’ve updated the post. The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage has approved it, but now it needs to be approved on a higher level.

  9. The point is that things are changing – how much and how fast is still to be seen. We shouldn’t judge the country entirely on its past, but encourage positive change. I too would visit as part of this process.

  10. The flight you mentioned is also bookable through JetSmarter and is included for free in some of their memberships.

  11. Ahhhhhhhh I wish this had happened on time … was going to book a Saudia flight to Africa with 12h layover in Jeddah but since it’s not going to happen in the next two weeks I didn’t do it.

  12. @debit

    Then you need to go to Lebanon, Tunisia, Dubai, Morocco…you will some of them there in bikinis.

  13. What I see here everyone became experts to speak about a country that never visited. To depict a nation which is just over 100 years old and went through everything in order to manage the largest territory and population in the Middle East. It’s not a perfect place but what I really don’t like is not to recognize the huge enormous efforts the current heir is making to speed up things and progress close to it’s neighbor Dubai (where I live). I think normal people and possibly not shallow, should recognize the efforts. I do.

  14. Nice news. Even with the great fares ex Asia to North America, I would try try at this moment. I am grateful Ben has travelled SV for us and give some insights. Lazy arabic male FAs, letting only the female FAs from the Philippines to work for them…as long as they do not have a decent airport hotels in Jeddah and Riad..not eager to try out.

  15. If ya wanna see what it’s like to be a westerner (non-Muslim) living/working in Saudi… come over to Dammam and drop me a line. Would be happy to show you around.

    Regarding the comment about Jeddah… it’s actually very multicultural and the diving in the Red Sea off the West Coast is unique.

    The Kingdom is very diverse. Your Riyadh experience will be very different from your Jeddah, Dammam or Mada’in Saleh experience.

    I know a good ‘tour opetator’ I can recommend as well.

    Best of luck getting a visa.
    Kind regards.

  16. I said it before on this blog and I’ll say it again, racism is ok these days if the recipient is Arab, especially Saudi. While the comments here have slightly improved compared to a year ago, you still find the eventual slur that would be extremely inappropriate had it been directed at someone else.

    I admire the fact that you prefer to experience the country first-hand instead of allowing others to think for you. That’s something I’ve both practiced and preached for a long time now.
    I do acknowledge though that the Kingdom has some very archaic and downright unacceptable rules, but people need to understand that:
    1-Western standards don’t apply everywhere else in the world, and they aren’t perfect either.
    2- Saudi Arabia has come a long way since it’s inception less than 80 years ago, other countries needed centuries to get to where the kingdom is today (some even started way earlier and were surpassed by the kingdom within decades) and that in and of itself is admirable.

    Part of the blame falls on the state media which used to be quite indifferent to the coubtry’s image abroad, which allowed its adversaries the freedom to say whatever they liked without any pushback. It also helped that a respectable number of recipients allow themselves to be manipulated by said media.

    Yes change is happening at break-neck speed but that’s not to appease westerners (so the alcoholic guy above who needs a drink wherever he goes can relax and know that he might wait forever).

    On a personal and societal level, you’ll be surprised by the hospitality and friendliness of the people, which isn’t that different from other neighboring gulf
    countries.

    Waiting for your trip to materialize as it will be one of the more interesting adventures you’ll go on.

  17. Having worked and lived in Riyadh for many years, I do appreciate the attempt to swing that ponderous pendulum towards more personal and cultural freedoms. That being said, do not expect rapid or even “normal” change for this kingdom. It will move as always: a little forward and a little back. The relationship with the USA is something else that at times defies reason, but never geopolitics. We sell F-15’s, missiles, bombs, and military hardware to the country that supplied much of the 911 money behind the hijackers, so as to impede Iranian Middle East ambitions. Touring KSA might not be so fun if not all the officials/guards/police/gatekeepers are on board with the Crown prince’s ambitious tourism agenda. Keep an eye out wherever…just saying.

  18. @Borax Jews, atheists and gay people have always lived and worked there without any trouble ( I’m an atheist citizen myself). The thing is if you keep to yourself and not make a lot of noise about it no one cares, start waving a pride flag down Tahliya street and you have a problem.

  19. Lucky, what is the Saudi tourist visa policy for a USA passport with an Israeli visa stamp?

  20. The amount of money you are contributing to a disagreeable regime is certainly a factor, but I believe that’s offset by the potential for learning about and interacting with the country in a way most people in the Western world don’t. And also, I agree with those who have pointed out the country is changing fast, so we should be attempting now more than ever to understand and interact with the place. Enjoy – I can’t wait to get a tourist visa myself!

  21. Dont forget that you’d have to be in a group tour (4 people) to visit Saudi Arabia to get a tourist visa. You would not be able to visit solo.

  22. I’ve spent a lot of time in Saudi Arabia, (Dammam, Jeddah, and Riyadh) on business, and it’s quite like most other big cities in the USA. a little hotter than most but the Saudi’s are lovely people and very hospitable. We forget that there was not a cohesive Saudi Arabia until I think sometime in the mid !900″s. Saudi was kinda liberal until the late 70’s and the arrival of the Islamic revolution. Now, they have good food at their local restaurants, and as far as I can tell, every major chain restaurant we have. It’s funny that the chains have the same interior designs as here, even a bar space where you can get “mocktails” or a juice, while you wait for a table. Most hotels are very accommodating and friendly and a little more luxurious than we may have here. If you are visiting someone living in one of the western compounds, they “‘usually ” have bars and alcohol drinks available. Jeddah is my favorite city. Very tropical; Florida like, but centuries old on one hand and modern on the other. Incredible old souks and old, old ruins to explore. Riyadh, as the nation’s capitol city and center of government, can be a little stuffy, not unlike DC, and still very modern. Dammam, Khobar and Dhahran , on the East coast are very modern, but seem a little less developed as Manama, Bahrain is just 16 miles across the causeway, and many, many Saudi’s cross the causeway to go out to dinner, drinks, shopping and the movies. The attitude of the people is mostly very modern, not backwards at all. The backwardness was forced on them by the religious clerics. As far as the driving goes, the Saudi men are such bad drivers, i could be really afraid of the women driving, LOL. I’m for it. Once you drive outside one of the big cities you are really in the desert and all you may see is sand, a herd of camels on the horizon, and abandoned suburbans and Mercedes on the side of the road. I’m looking forward to going again when the new visa program opens.

  23. The differenice between comments from people who have never been to KSA and those who have really proves your point. Go to the place then form an opinion, positive or negative.

  24. The Govt. Could use the visa fees to settle the upcoming billion dollar liability law suit over the 911 horror.

  25. One of the main issue holding back change in Saudi Arabia has been their wealth. Until recently everything was massively subsidised and there was a huge hot climate malaise about the place. Maybe it’s starting to change a little as the reality sinks in that there might be money for another 50 years or so, after which the whole place could revert to desert and a nomadic lifestyle.
    Maybe they are starting to look at some ( highly modified ) version of Dubai as a model…or at the very least something akin to Oman ( Omanis are required to work at real jobs) in respect of human resources. Saudis have always been scathing about Dubai, as a strumpet rather than a jewel in the crown, but it doesn’t stop them from flocking there for a visit at every opportunity.
    The new guy has set the tone by trying to reign in some of the excesses, via the stays at the Four Seasons. Hope for more of the same. He has also cut loose some of the minor royals who had been running up huge bills in London and Paris, and failing to pay.
    Riyadh is utterly charmless but Jeddah is a little like Beirut and Damman is quite nice also.
    As for Gay; I was traveling on business with a gay colleague who planted a huge sloppy kiss on his ( just flown in ) BF in the lobby of out hotel in Riyadh. No one paid any attention or showed any interest ( that’s not to say they don’t make life very difficult /intolerable for local gays, I’m sure they do).

  26. @Salman

    They self-identify as Arab, so…what’s your point? And there are many people in those countries who have Arab DNA. I mean, there are lots of people/citizens in the Arabian peninsula with south Asian and African DNA, who speak Arabic and identify as Arab. Does that make them less Arab too?

    @Nicola

    What’s funny is Saudi Arabia as a whole was much more liberal and open in the 60s and 70s. It became more conservative and closed in the 80s. So you really can’t use that as an excuse.

    @Aziz

    But if people who have been there give a negative view of the country, they are then dismissed as being racist or whatever…

    @Paolo

    Jeddah is nothing like Beirut, besides the fact that they’re both coastal cities that get very humid in the summer.

    Also, anecdotal evidence does not a gay tolerant society make.

    Saudi does have a long way to go. We’ll see if women will actually be able to drive this summer. But there are other issues as well. Will the country still shut down during prayer time, or will merchants/restaurant and shop owners have the option to stay open? Will other religions be allowed to have public places to worship? Will local women still need a male guardian for things like permission to travel, etc?

    Saudis are nice people overall, except when it comes to driving. And far too many still have a sense of entitlement when it comes to their work ethic.

  27. If you go to The Kingdom of Darkness, make sure you don’t post anything negative until you are out of the country…

  28. @Aaron

    I have negative views of my own and I’m a citizen. I 100% a negative view when it’s reasonable and we constructed, racist comments-on the other hand-I don’t appreciate.

    @SullyofDoha

    Your username says it all.

  29. If you actually want life to improve for gay and female Saudis, you’ll get on the first plane and go. This isn’t South Africa in the 1980s. There’s no Mandela begging the world to boycott. When the world comes to visit, things quickly improve. Look at Vietnam.

    All this moral purity “I wouldn’t support a country that does that” nonsense is backwards. Support the gay Saudi street vendor, taxi driver by buying what he’s selling and showing an interest.

  30. Tourist visas before the heat of summer? Not likely. This is still many weeks away, even months away and by then it will be 38C (100F) or above every day.

    For anyone who has never tasted ‘fresh dates’, by this I mean the bi-color ones that you have likely never seen on sale, give them a try. In the Riyadh region, this is very early August. (Earlier in other areas). Sadly, it’s the hottest time of the year and you can expect 45C (113F) temperature.

    Riyadh will not be on the tourist trail. It’s now a massive city but not geared toward tourism. Northern Kingdom, East Kingdom and Hejaz are where tourists will go. FYI – Non-Muslims are not allowed in Makkah or Madinah and yes, they check as you near the Holy Cities. Saudi Nationals are all Muslims and we (expats) have residence permits (Iqama) that show our religion.

    The pace of changes has been phenomenal. Just five years ago, you never saw Saudi ladies working at any type of “front-office” jobs. Today they are almost the majority. They will start driving in two months and that will speed up changes even more.

    KSA will likely stay a dry country. By and large, Muslims don’t consume alcohol. If I had to guess (and it is a guess), I’d say maybe 5% will imbibe.

    I have no issues flying Saudia, but their fares are rarely competitive. I miss Qatar Airways, they had great fares, great service and great lounges. Will try PAL (Philippines Air Lines) next week in J class. Sure hope they stock JD.

    *

  31. @By and large, Muslims don’t consume alcohol. If I had to guess (and it is a guess), I’d say maybe 5% will imbibe.

    I’d guess the number is much larger than that.

  32. @Aziz,
    Like you, I have many things to say that would constructively challenge the Khaliji status quo. However, we both live in countries where that is simply not an option, unless of course we want to be guests in our respective nation’s correctional facilities…
    Anyways, sorry about the KOD slight. I know many Saudis who are awesome.

  33. I lived and worked in Yanbu for a long time and my children were born there. We would love to be able to visit Yanbu again for visit. Hope that tourist visa will materialize soon..

  34. OK so where is the online portal to submit the tourist visa application?

    Where is the putting into practice all of this “from April 1” stuff?

    Is there any update or was this a date that would simply be a target?

  35. @Borax, I am gay and have a Jewish family name (though I am atheist). I have been to KSA a few times on business trips on the past.

    Saudi is not a party destination but it will be interesting for the off-the-beaten-track tourist. Western media loves portraying Saudi Arabia in a very negative light.

    I wouldn’t mind to return as a tourist and visit places like the area near the Yemeni border or Madinah Saleh.

  36. Thanks for keeping up with this! Living in Izmir with new direct flights to SA has me itching to know when the visas will open! Here’s to hoping with you (although the fall time is looking more and more appealing as the summer temps approach).

  37. I am hoping that the tourist visas are sorted out in the near future as I am looking forward to going to Saudi very soon. Lots to see, it will be amazing.

  38. Any updates on when the tourist visas will be available-as I just heard that they still are not available ?
    I’d love to go back( after nearly 40 years) to see how everything has chnaged.Spent wonderful years in both Jeddah and Riaydh and really would love to go for a short tourist trip .Regards from Finland!

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