First, Saudi Arabia opened its doors to citizens of 49 countries. Then, it announced that female tourists won't need to wear an abaya when roaming the streets. And now it's been revealed that foreign men and women can share hotel rooms in the kingdom, whether or not they're married. Saudi Arabia is really serious about developing its tourism sector, even if that means old laws must be tossed to the side.
Previously, couples had to present documents proving marriage before being granted a shared hotel room. In a bid to attract more tourists, Saudi Arabia has eased up restrictions.
"All Saudi nationals are asked to show family ID or proof of relationship on checking into hotels," the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage said in a statement.
"This is not required of foreign tourists."
Also, women, whether local or foreign, can now book and stay in hotel rooms unaccompanied. This means that women no longer need a male guardian's presence to rent a room.
The new visa regulations first made headlines after it was announced that female tourists won't need to fully cover up when visiting the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia enforces a strict dress code, obliging women to wear abayas - aka full-length garments - in public spaces. Several women have been arrested for appearing in public without the abaya. With regard to female tourists, they will still have to wear "modest clothing" even when headed to public beaches, however, did not elaborate further on the matter.
All these new decisions come as part of a new visa program that has been in the making for quite some time, which aims at transforming Saudi Arabia into a tourism hotspot. The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) made the announcement at an event in Ad-Diriyah, an ancient touristic city in the kingdom, at the end of September. Jumpstarting the tourism sector is one of the key goals under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's Vision 2030 which aims at reducing the country's reliance on oil.
Traveling to Saudi Arabia was previously restricted to business-related purposes or religious ones. But one of the key goals under Vision 2030 is to increase the number of tourists who visit Saudi Arabia and revenues generated from the sector to 18 percent in the next 14 years. Under the same scheme, Saudi Arabia is expected to host up to 1.5 million tourists by 2020. It's true that much of that number comes from religious tourism, but that doesn't mean effort hasn't been put into the growth of the leisure tourism sector.
In fact, the kingdom has been slowly inviting tourists to enjoy the many activities, summer festivals, sporting events, and concerts that it's been hosting. At the end of last year, the kingdom announced it will begin offering electronic visas for foreign visitors who wish to attend sporting events and concerts. In December, the kingdom launched the visa service for visitors for the motoring event Formula E and saw 1,000 tourists from 80 countries land in the kingdom.
This summer, Saudi Arabia did the same thing when the Jeddah Season festival began. All attendees from abroad were granted a visa online upon purchasing an event ticket. Such events have seen women join in on the fun as non-gender segregated events become more accepted in the kingdom. However, there are still various laws that must be met to avoid trouble in that arena.
In recent months, the kingdom has been focusing less on gender-segregation and more on sector-diversification in a bid to expand the kingdom's economic gains once and for all.