Saudi Arabia’s decision to begin issuing tourist visas starting next year is great for both the country’s own economy and for the regional tourism industry as a whole, although it is likely to face numerous challenges as it moves forward.
Saudi Arabia has long allowed tourists for religious purposes — Haj and Umrah — but the decision to open it to a wider audience speaks volumes about the country’s focus on its future in the post-oil economic world. While details of the full plan have yet to emerge, it appears the Saudi move isn’t just a knee-jerk reaction to tough economic times. In its own statements, the Saudi government acknowledges a high-priced visa is not in the country’s best interest; instead, it will be focusing on the cumulative value of a successful tourism industry. The UAE itself is a shining example that the Middle East can be a transformed into a lucrative tourism market.
But Saudi Arabia is going to have to make some tough decisions. The economic reformation currently underway in the kingdom under the directive of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has taken the country forward in leaps not seen in a generation, such as allowing movie theatres, comic-cons and the right for Saudi women to drive. Those moves were not met with overwhelming approval in the country, so it seems unlikely that the Saudis will liberalise further to accommodate foreigners who look for more liberal western accommodations. But those issues can be dealt with as they come up. For now, Saudi Arabia can focus on what it has to offer, such as archaeological sites from the region’s pre-Islamic era. What is important is that the Saudis have taken the first steps towards a more dynamic and open economy.