Saudi Arabia has thrown open its doors to foreign tourists, announcing that it would launch a new visa programme for 49 countries and also relax its strict dressing code in a bid to draw foreign companies to invest in the country’s tourism sector.

Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs. PHOTO: Reuters

The conservative Muslim kingdom strict dress codes for female visitors required them to wear all-covering black robes, or abayas.

Tourism chief Ahmed al-Khateeb told Reuters in an interview in the run-up to the official announcement that abayas will not be mandatory for women tourists but modest dress is, including at public beaches, according to Reuters report.

The country announced the new visa programme and appealed to foreign companies to invest in a sector it hopes will contribute 10 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030.

Visas will be available online for about $80, with no restrictions for unaccompanied women as in the past. Access to the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina is restricted.

More details, including which countries are eligible, were expected later on Friday. Khateeb said China, Japan, Europe and the United States were among the top outbound targets.

Reuters report, until now, foreigners travelling to Saudi Arabia have been largely restricted to resident workers and their dependents, business travellers, and Muslim pilgrims who are given special visas to visit Mecca and Medina.

The country has in recent years relaxed strict social codes, such as segregating men and women in public places and dress requirements for women.

But as it liberalises rules on tourism, Khateeb indicated that alcohol remains banned: “We will have enough tourists to come to Saudi Arabia to enjoy other things.”

Plans to admit significant numbers of leisure tourists have been discussed for years, only to be blocked by conservative opinion and bureaucracy. An e-visa for sporting events and concerts was introduced last December.

The move is part of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious plans to develop new industries to wean the world’s top oil exporter off crude and open up society including by introducing previously banned entertainment.

Many of his reforms received international praise, but his image has been tarnished by last year’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the arrest of critics including prominent female activists and a devastating war in Yemen.

MBS said that he bears responsibility for the event, which he said happened “under his watch”, according to a PBS documentary that has yet to be aired.

Vanguard News Nigeria.

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