Saudi Arabia eases travel restrictions for foreigners, citizens

In recent months, however, the kingdom has vaccinated close to 11.5 million residents with at least one jab of the COVID-19 vaccine, making them eligible to depart the country Monday under the new guidelines.

Monday 17/05/2021
Saudi passengers greet each other as they prepare to fly out of King Abdulaziz International Airport, in Jiddah, May 17, 2021. (AP)
Saudi passengers greet each other as they prepare to fly out of King Abdulaziz International Airport, in Jiddah, May 17, 2021. (AP)

RIYADH – Saudi Arabia plans to soon reopen to foreign tourists, a senior tourism official said on Monday after the kingdom announced the lifting of quarantine restrictions for certain foreign arrivals.

The kingdom announced late on Sunday that non-citizens arriving from certain countries and who were fully vaccinated against or recently recovered from COVID-19 would no longer be required to quarantine in designated government hotels.

Those new measures, however, only apply to residents, government and business travellers or those visiting friends and family but not foreign tourists, according to the Saudi Tourism Authority (STA).

STA Chief Executive Fahd Hamidaddin said the kingdom would reopen to foreign tourists this year with an announcement expected to be made “very soon.”

Hamidaddin declined to say exactly when.

Saudi Arabia liberalised its tourism industry in 2019, making it easier for foreigners to apply for tourist visas to the kingdom which had been relatively closed off for decades.

Hamidaddin said the kingdom was still targeting 100 million annual visits by 2030, up from about 40 million a year before the pandemic. It was also still targeting for tourism revenues to account for 10% of GDP, up from 3%, by 2030, he said.

Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 430,000 cases of the virus since the start of the pandemic, including more than 7,160 deaths. Close to 1,400 people remain in critical condition with the virus.

Although tourist visa holders to Saudi Arabia remain barred from entry, the kingdom is aggressively promoting its sites to would-be visitors.

At Dubai’s in-person Arabian Travel Market show this week, Saudi Arabia is heavily marketing its Red Sea coastline and heritage sites such as the desert Al-Ula ruins and the fort of Diriyah outside Riyadh.

Easing travel ban

Saudi Arabia also eased a travel ban for vaccinated citizens who will be allowed to leave the kingdom for the first time in more than a year on Monday.

For the past 14 months, Saudi citizens have mostly been banned from going abroad out of concerns that international travel could fuel the outbreak of the virus within the country of more than 30 million people. The ban, in place since March 2020, has impacted among others, Saudi students who were studying overseas.

In recent months, however, the kingdom has vaccinated close to 11.5 million residents with at least one jab of the COVID-19 vaccine, making them eligible to depart the country Monday under the new guidelines. Authorities will also allow people who have recently recovered from the virus and minors under 18 years of age with travel insurance to go abroad.

Saudi travelers are required to show their health status to airport officials through the government’s health app, Tawakkalna. Travellers returning from abroad will be required to quarantine at home and be tested for the virus.

The kingdom, which has covered coronavirus-related hospitalisations for citizens and residents, imposed some of the most sweeping measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus early on in the pandemic. They include shuttering mosques and businesses for several weeks at a time, dramatically scaling down the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and sealing its borders to travellers.

A recent list of countries for which direct or indirect travel remains restricted, however, includes a number of high-risk nations, including Lebanon, Yemen, Iran, Turkey and India.

Saudis will, however, be able to once again cross into neighbouring Bahrain via the King Fahd Causeway starting Monday as restrictions are eased, according to local media reports. The tiny island nation where the sale of alcohol is legal under specific rules is a popular destination for Saudi residents and others seeking a short holiday.

The kingdom’s flagship carrier Saudia will operate flights to 71 destinations, 43 of them international, starting Monday. Among them are Cairo, Sharm el-Sheikh, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Paris, Athens, Frankfurt, Washington and New York.