Some Saudi travel agencies have been authorized to begin issuing travel visas.

Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) in Jeddah issued the first license allowing a travel agency to issue tourist visas, according to Arab News. The report says that agencies classified in category D will now be authorized to issue such visas.

While all categories of Saudi tour agencies (A, B, C, D) can provide travel tickets, it appears from local reports that only those classified as D will be able to issue visas as of now.

The news comes after months of Saudi officials saying tourist visas would be issued soon. Last month, the head of Saudi Arabia's tourism authority said such visas were on their way.

Riyadh Source: WikiMedia

"Tourist visas will be introduced soon," Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdul Aziz said in a statement.

Formerly, visas were only available to pilgrims, business people with a local sponsor and family members of residents.

Over the summer, Riyadh allocated $2.67 billion to the SCTH to develop and rebuild tourism projects in the country. At the time, SCTH explained that it would receive 40 percent of the recently allocated government funds, while the remaining 60 percent would be distributed among its government partners. 

Six new tourism initiatives were identified as well. These include the development of touristic destinations for families in areas like Al Ula, Fursan Islands, and Al Raas Al Abyad Shore. They also include the rehabilitation of 80 of the country's archaeological sites. 

Prince Sultan bin Salman
Saudi tourism head Prince Sultan bin Salman

The kingdom also announced during summer plans to drastically develop a massive portion of its Red Sea coast, catering to luxury beach tourists.

According to a document initially reported by Bloomberg, the development will be a "semi-autonomous" area within the kingdom, leading to speculation that the kingdom's traditional rules on dress and prohibition on alcohol will not be applied. 

The document said the area will be ruled "by independent laws and a regulatory framework developed and managed by a private committee."

But beyond potentially challenging the kingdom's conservative laws, the project will be truly massive, covering 34,000 square kilometers – including 50 islands. This means it will span an area bigger than the country of Belgium.

The project aims to transform Saudi Arabia's Red Sea coastline into a global tourism hotspot, with luxury hotels and pristine beaches. Work on the project is expected to start within two years and it will be funded by the kingdom's sovereign wealth fund. 

According to reports, the area will not require visas or will grant visas on arrival, making it easily accessible to travelers from around the world. It is also expected to add some $4 billion to the Saudi economy annually while creating 35,000 jobs.

Under Saudi Vision 2030, a key goal is to increase the number of tourists in the kingdom. Until now, while millions travel to Saudi Arabia each year, this is primarily for religious tourism to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina.

Now the kingdom aims to increase revenues generated from tourism to 18 percent in the next 14 years. Under Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia is expected to host up to 1.5 million tourists by 2020. 

Released last year, the ambitious plan seeks to fight unemployment and develop non-oil industries, including tourism, as well as small and medium enterprises, creating a broader investment base.