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  • New visa system allowed foreigners in for race event 
  • Boosting tourism revenue is part of broader economic reforms
  • Reforms overshadowed recently by Khashoggi murder, Yemen war

Riyadh - Western tourists, a rarity in Saudi Arabia, visited this weekend under a new visa system, as country tries to open up its economy and diversify it away from oil.

Thousands of fans flocked to Riyadh's historic Diriyah district for Formula E, a motor sports tournament using electric vehicles, and concerts were held by David Guetta and Black Eyed Peas.

Most were Saudis still unaccustomed to such entertainment in their own country, where cinemas and public concerts were banned until changes by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took place in the past two years.

More on Saudi tourism sector

Some Westerners have also seized the opportunity to visit a country that still largely restricts foreigners as tourists, and restrict their entrance to even a resident workers, business visitors, or Muslim pilgrims.

An American named Jason is spending a week here with his German wife, riding quad bikes in the desert and visiting heritage sites in Ushaiger, 200 km northwest of the capital.

"The race sounds interesting but to be honest it was a means to see the country. We're happy to be here," he said. "I've always wanted to come for many, many years... I'm so happy to be here and that they're letting us be here."

A tourist takes a photo as she attends a Formula E race in Riyadh Image Credit: Reuters

Aaron, a 40-year-old software engineer, travelled from New York for two days. He and a few dozen other adventure travellers seeking to visit every country in the world checked the desert kingdom off their list this weekend.

"Saudi Arabia's always been an exotic place... and I didn't think I'd ever be able to come here," he said as circus performers entertained guests in between races.

Some 1,000 foreigners from 80 countries received the new "sharek" visa, which is linked to a specific entertainment event, the authorities said.

That is a fraction of what they eventually hope to attract.

"Hopefully we will learn from this and see what we need to do for the future, but I can tell you from now that there is a lot of demand..." Prince Abdulaziz Bin Turki Al Faisal, vice-chairman of the General Sports Authority.

Tourism Targets

Whizzing electric racecars wound through the ruins of Diriyah, the capital of the first Saudi state built by the ruling Al Saud family three centuries ago.

The UNESCO world heritage site is undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation, celebrating a telling of national history that puts the dynasty and its clerical allies front and centre.

Plans to admit significant numbers of tourists from abroad have been discussed for years.

Now the crown prince is seeking to develop new industries to wean the world's top oil exporter off petro-dollars.

Tourism is high on the agenda, despite a shortage of infrastructure. Reforms aim to lift total spending - by locals and foreigners - to $46.6 billion in 2020 from $27.9 billion in 2015.

James, another American tourist, said the visit corrected some of his preconceived notions.

Saudi Tourism