The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) said on Sunday it has finalised regulations governing the planned issuance of tourist visas in the kingdom this year, and submitted them to the government for approval.

“The National Transformation Programme 2020 has adopted the ‘tourist visa’ as one of the important initiatives with high economic feasibility, which will exert a direct influence on upgrading the quality of services, resolving the issue of seasonality and controlling the prices of tourism-related services,” SCTH said in a statement.

An announcement from the Saudi government is expected “soon”, the statement added.

An SCTH official said in December that Saudi Arabia would begin issuing tourist visas in the first quarter of 2018. Opening up the tourism sector is part of the Vision 2030 economic diversification plan to modernise the kingdom and reduce dependency on oil revenues.

Last year, Saudi Arabia welcomed an estimated 18 million visitors, but most of these were Hajj pilgrims.

Other than that, Saudi Arabia grants tourist visas for a limited number of countries, but they are subject to a lengthy application process and tight restrictions, including requirements to travel through an accredited company and stay at designated hotels.

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Last summer however the kingdom announced plans to reform the sector, such as a project to transform a 200-kilometre stretch of Red Sea coastline, including 50 islands, into a luxury destination featuring hotels, residences and entertainment.

Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, will provide the initial investment for the project, in which British billionaire businessman Richard Branson has also pledged to invest.

Around 900,000 Saudis work in the travel and tourism sector, according to the SCTH. The kingdom has some important archaeological and historic sites, including Madain Saleh, built by the ancient Nabateans who also constructed the rock-hewn city in Petra in Jordan, and Diriyah, a small historic city about 20 kilometres from Riyadh – both of which are Unesco World Heritage sites.

In its statement, the SCTH said it has worked with “various state institutions to prepare all arrangements related to the new visas”.

An electronic system to process and record visa transactions has been developed, it added, under the supervision of a specialist team headed by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.

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