Saudi Arabia To Start Issuing Tourist Visas In 2018

Filed Under: Saudia

I’ve flown through Saudi Arabia several times now, and it’s a country I’d be fascinated to actually visit. Up until now they haven’t really issued traditional tourist visas. While millions of people travel to Saudi Arabia every year to visit Mecca, for those of us who aren’t Muslim and looking to visit the holy sites, the country has been largely off limits. Saudi Arabia doesn’t even issue transit visas anymore, so if you’re connecting through the country you can’t leave the airport.

Saudia’s 777 first class

The good news is that it looks like this will finally be changing soon. CNN’s Richard Quest has an interview with Prince Sultan bin Salman, the head of Saudi Arabia’s tourism and national heritage commission. In it, he explains that Saudi Arabia plans to start issuing tourist visas in 2018, and that they want to have 30 million visitors a year by 2030 (up from 18 million in 2016):

Saudi Arabia plans to issue its first tourist visas in 2018, the prince said. Visas were previously restricted to people traveling to the country for work or to visit its holy sites.

Attracting tourists is a central plank of the country’s plan to reduce its reliance on oil. It’s aiming for 30 million visitors a year by 2030, up from 18 million in 2016, and it wants annual tourism spending to hit $47 billion by 2020.

The crown prince has vowed to destroy “extremist ideologies” and return to “a more moderate Islam.” There are signs that some restrictions are already being relaxed.

While Saudi Arabia is working on creating tourist attractions, like building a Six Flags and building resorts along the Red Sea, that’s not what fascinates me about the country.

Naturally people will question why I’d want to visit a country like this, and the truth is that I’d love to see what life is really like in Saudi Arabia. The best way to form an opinion about a place is to actually visit it, and while I have my preconceived notions about the country, I’d like to be able to see firsthand whether those are accurate or unfounded.

Saudi Arabia, if you do start issuing tourist visas, you can bet I’ll be among the first there. While the 2018 timeline sounds great, personally I’m not that confident they’ll stick to that. At least it’s good news that they’re in general planning on opening themselves up to tourists.

Riyadh Airport

Anyone else interested to visit Saudi Arabia, or is it just me? 😉

(Tip of the hat to View from the Wing)

  1. Been there a few dozen times (non-muslim) on business (JED/RUH) and it’s not as bad as people make it to be honest. Just being a dry country is a tad annoying. 🙂

  2. Been there before for work. It’s really not that bad. There is no alcohol, and the culture is more conservative, but the people are very hospitable. Never felt unsafe. In JED, there is every form of American casual dining available. I went to my first Texas Roadhouse there. Lol.

  3. @Sam
    Is Saudi very different to the other Middle Eastern countries that allow booze?
    Hopefully Saudia would introduce free stopovers, especially on their cheap business fares haha. Don’t mind checking out Saudi hotels, except perhaps the Ritz. 😉

  4. There are sites such as Mada’in Saleh that would definitely draw tourists, and the Red Sea coast would get lots of people looking for sun and sand and scuba diving. But that’s the problem, right? Do Saudis really want a bunch of westerners frolicking around in skimpy swimsuits?

  5. I lived in RUH and JED for a year. There’s absolutely nothing to do there and all I had to look forward to was pay day and the next chance to get out of the kingdom. I recently went back this year and was shocked that it now costs US$500+ for a single entry business visa. Not to mention having to put up with the rudest immigration officers in the world who will make you stand in line whole they visibly play with their mobile phones and literally throw your passport back in your face.

  6. I’ll never forget my Saudi boyfriend saying “Grindr works just fine in Jeddah”. Since then, I’ve learned much about life in the Kingdom and I’ve wished I could go. The best way to improve the world is for people to know each other. I’m visiting!

  7. Me too! So many on the list now: Diving/snorkeling in Farasan Islands, old mud houses in Najran, greenery in Abha, to name a few.

  8. Very questionable that you are supporting a country which has the death penalty for gays!!! Just one of many arguments against it. There are many more!!

  9. Honestly it would be extremely cool to see Mecca purely as a tourist, same as it would be to see Vatican, Western Wall, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, etc. However I don’t think Saudi Arabia will allow that for a long time.

  10. This would be for non-Mecca/Medina tourism. Not so sure there is a ton to do there now but desert sports and Red Sea area could take off, especially with everything going on in the Sinai.

  11. I’ve wanted to go for years. Always ready stories of complicated ways to get visas through Saudi embassies in other countries and transit visas etc. Very excited about this!!

  12. I would not go. No way. Any country that has the death penalty for gay people, count me out. Not worth the risk.

  13. @JP, for my personal safety, i’m better off in KSA than in a horribly dangerous place like the United States of America, where they execute innocent people!

    Seriously 99.99% of black people in USA don’t end up wrongfully convicted on death row, and 99.99% of gay people in KSA don’t end up being hanged in the public square for their “crimes”. KSA opening up is a good thing, people visiting is a good thing. Us talking about this stuff is a good thing.

  14. Probably te resorts are going to be like those in Kish Island (Iran). Segregated. Unless they manage to do unreligious spots where tourists do not need to follow Sharia.

  15. @DenB: Um, you think KSA doesn’t execute innocent people?
    (I just mean in KSA. Not even considering, you know, basically the entire population of Yemen right now.)

  16. The only reason I’m interested in going is to see the new tallest building being built now. It would be a quick visit.

  17. Can’t wait to go. My wife lived in Jeddah as an oil teen, she’s wanted to return for years. And now her sister and family live in Dammam and would love a visit from us. We can’t wait for this to be available, it’s always been more trouble than worth to meet them in Bahrain or UAE. My wife speaks fondly of the pristine snorkeling in the Red Sea and I’d love to see Madain Saleh (family has been there and their pictures are stunning). And after rumor of tourist visas for years it’s great to finally see some action!

  18. I’m writing this from Saudi. I’ve mentioned problems here before, like gross inefficiency (the bureaucracy is often staggeringly inept). And I’m not sure there’s a lot to see here – young people are often very bored. Despite some racism and other unsavoury characteristics that all countries have, I would say the best aspect of Saudi is its people. There’s a sweetness that I’m not sure I’ve found in any other country, and it’s really something to behold. I’d recommend people visit just for this.

  19. Worked there for over a year in Dammam (eastern side). Had opportunities to visit other parts of the country, but would leave every week and head to Bahrain or go to other countries like Oman, UAE, etc.

    The Saudi people are very nice and hospitable, and I felt safer there than I do in the US. The only place that locals told me to go visit was Madain Salih (UNESCO site; one of 4 in the country I believe). It was on the other side of the country from where I was working, so didn’t go, but to fly directly near there might not be a bad option.

    Mecca is off-limits to non-Muslims, and I wouldn’t try to test this if you are a non-Muslim. There is a channel or several on the TV in Saudi with 24/7 live feeds of Mecca, so you can watch that instead.

  20. I would certainly visit as a tourist, even with certain religious sites off-limits to non-Muslims. Being a dry country (in multiple respects) doesn’t bother me. Like many I’d prefer to get out and about rather than stick to segregated resorts. I would want to arrange a guide, though…really not a fan of unintentionally breaching taboos or even laws.

  21. funny how lucky is busy promoting all the airlines and nations like Saudia/KSA and Qatar that actually has laws to sentence LGBT to death just for being who they are ??

  22. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has been on a charm offensive in recent months! and despite all the articles and even tourism warning issued by the states (which isn’t as big as some articles seem to make it to be)- promoting these tourism changes have been a success.
    The crown prince has promised to crack down on extremism and corruption to show Saudi Arabia’s potential and declare that it will return to a form of ‘moderate, open Islam’. So many strides have taken place for social reform most popular (at least for the west) being the end to the country’s infamous driving ban on women.
    Now in regards to this ban, it was finally lifted in September by royal decree, though other restrictions on what women can do in Saudi society remain in place. And there will be complaints but the world is slowly getting to understand change is happening but it needs time.
    Yeah–many travellers remain wary of visiting Saudi Arabia due to its extremely conservative culture and instability in the region, but it is surely heading towards a bright path that will ensure a safe and enriching experience for all visitors to the best of their capabilities.

  23. Abu Dhabi always tell the world they have a USD 545 million mosque, perhaps now it is Saudi Arabia’s turn to show off? 🙂

  24. All comments suggests it is safe. But once MBS tears up his deal with the Wahhabis will it still be safe? If interested in ME/Central Asia I would urge a visit to Samarkand, Bukhara, Khiva, Nukus etc

  25. Wasn’t aware they had stopped issuing transit visas.

    Since I have no legitimate reason to go there for work, it looks like the only option is a tourist visa, so will be glad they will be issuing them.

  26. LOL. I wouldn’t wanna vacation there not even if you paid me. It’s the equivalent of asking me if I want to tour North Korea. No thank you.

    Expected diferently from you, Lucky.

  27. Uh–duh–well, Riyadh was targeted by a missile attack on 4 November by the Yemeni Houthis’s (intercepted by a Patriot battery, but missile disintegrated close to Riyadh International Airport). The US State Dept. has a very seriously worded warning re. travel to parts of the country and a general warning of increased risk. Please factor this current status in your welcome enthusiasm for being a tourist in Saudi Arabia.

  28. @Richie: If I stopped traveling based on every State Department warning, I wouldn’t be traveling much.

    I am not going to sit at home because something might happen.

  29. Been there several times on business and on one business trip, stayed an extra 8 days and roamed around independently.

    Madaih Saleh, Najran and Abha area (mountainous green area in the west) are highlights. Jeddah old town also nice and scenic. Jeddah and Riyadh are duller versions of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, respectively. Dry country but good local food and friendly people generally, if a bit reserved. You’ll mostly encounter Pakistanis, Indians and Filipinos in your daily life if you stay at hotels. Saudis are rather private and unlikely you’ll interact with many if any at all.

    Most dangerous thing is the driving – cars drive in probably the wildest, least orderly, most reckless way I’ve ever seen anywhere else in the world. Going the opposite direction of the road lanes while in the shoulder just to do a shortcut is simply a matter of course; speeding and weaving are intricate techniques honed over years of no policing; attention to the road is an afterthought. Be careful if you drive and rent the biggest SUV you can (usually a Suburban or a Tahoe are available).

  30. I think the future of Saudi Arabia is unknown, but now there is a trajectory for change.
    The negative images of the country have a basis in history and actual fact, but Wahhabism has only been the dreary, rigidly controlling feature of the life of the people here within the living memory of some. To assume all the present realities of Saudi Arabia are fixed in stone does not take into account the ambitions of Mohammad bin Salman and of the younger generation for which he is a beacon of hope.

    For some travelers the present realities may well mean taking a “wait and see” perspective before going. For others, once the country is opened up to tourism, the time may be ripe for a visit. I’m betting, though anything can happen, that within 10 years the Saudi Arabia of 2016 will be a sad reflection in the rear view mirror and that many of the valid criticisms in this comment section will pertain to things no longer true.

  31. I want to go there in holy place visit visa .how can i get this visa???nd cost of visa as singgal person???send me detail plzzz

  32. I have been there many times. Even if tourists are allowed to visit Arabia, there are concerns that some tourists would misbehave over there. Of course Madinah & Mecca would be off limits due to these places bring holy sites for Muslims.

  33. I’ve wanted to go ever since I visited Bahrain several years ago and met Saudi people who came over for the weekend. They mostly seemed to be truly sweet people. There are some interesting historic sites and old towns to see, and some pretty amazing landscapes. Rude customs agents – I’m used to those, I dealt with them every time I took a bus from Turkey to Greece. 😉 As for the gay thing – yeah there are laws, but I’ve known gay people from Saudi and while they all said it was hard for a variety of reasons, their main concern was their families. Nobody seemed fearful of police out hunting them down.

  34. I am in Pakistan, I am travelling to Turkey for conference. I have 22 hours stay At Jeddah Saudi Arabia airport. can I get transit visa. please comment

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