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Saudi opens up tourism sector

Riyadh, August 30, 2008

Relaxed immigration laws in Saudi Arabia mean expats can now go where few tourists have gone before - all the way across the King Fahad Causeway.

For years the massive kingdom just 25km west of Bahrain has been nothing more than a veiled mystery for most foreigners living and working here.

To get into Saudi Arabia an expat needed to be "sponsored" by a Saudi company and some firms still hold meetings with their international partners in Bahrain to avoid visa delays, which can take weeks.

However, the country witnessed a major change in tourism policy nine months ago with the introduction of Saudi holiday packages specifically geared towards international visitors.

The introduction of a new tourist visa means non-GCC nationals can now visit multiple destinations in Saudi Arabia.

However, bookings must be done through one of nine Saudi travel agents located in Riyadh, Dammam and Jeddah.

It is all part of a national tourism development strategy overseen by the Supreme Commission for Tourism, which aims to develop a national tourism strategy over the next 20 years.

Currently visitors must register with one of the nine travel agents, which then handle all the paperwork for visas and make all travel, accommodation and tour arrangements.

"There are regulations that visitors have to follow in order to get a visa," said Delijan Fahad Al Delijan, general manager of the Sa'ad Travel and Tourism Company in Dammam - one of the nine agencies offering the visa.

However, the visas do come with certain restrictions and only women aged 40 and above will be considered.

The visas are also available only to citizens of 66 approved countries.

"One regulation is that the visa should not be issued to individuals - only to a group of at least four people," added Al Delijan.

"Also, if there is a woman in the group she has to be aged above 40 and have a male guardian with her to follow the Saudi rules."

However, he said the process for applying for a tourist visa was the same as other countries around the world.

"The whole reason for this visa is to promote tourism in Saudi Arabia and let people from outside get to see the country and its historical places," he added.

Travel packages to Saudi Arabia range from a three-day visit to a two-week tour and the Sa'ad travel agency has one group from Germany and the UK due to arrive immediately after Ramadan during Eid Al Fitr.

Supervisor Waseem Khan said tourists received a briefing upon arrival about the "dos and don'ts" - such as the requirement for women to cover up.

"As a licensed agency our job is taking care of the tourists from the moment they arrive in Saudi Arabia," he said.

"From booking hotels and tour trips to taking them to the airport for their departure.

"Packages range from three days around one area such as the Eastern Province to 15 days around the whole Kingdom - where tourists can see the historical places, the shopping malls and the Saudi charm."

Even Saudis are said to be signing up for the packages for a chance to see parts of their own country they have never been to.

"The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities have helped us make Saudi Arabia a tourist destination," added Khan. "We are very optimistic - Saudi Arabia has a lot to offer tourists."

The Jeddah-based Sad Al Samallaghi travel agency revealed it had been catering to international tourists since 2000, before the new visa was introduced.

"We have brought foreigners from all over the world who were interested in seeing Saudi Arabia," said owner and director Ahmed Mostafa. "They were all impressed with the country and some wished their trip was longer."

"This year we have since January brought around 2,500 tourists to Saudi Arabia, from China, Taiwan, Germany, America, Italy, Japan and Singapore, among others."

He added most




Tags: Saudi | Tourism Sector |

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