After recent news that Saudi Arabia plans to start issuing tourist visas in 2018, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage has now licensed the first travel agencies to allot these travel permits.
Travel agencies in Saudi Arabia fall into one of four categories (A, B, C and D), all of which can sell flights and trips to the country, but only category D agencies can now issue tourist visas, according to local reports. Details have yet to be released about the specific agencies or the terms of the visas.
Millions of people visit each year, but tourist visas to Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most conservative countries, have been nearly impossible to obtain and were previously only available to religious pilgrims, business people and family members of locals. But now it seems that the country might be ready to open its doors to independent travel.
This past summer, the Kingdom announced plans to create luxury resorts on 50 islands in the Red Sea, partially funded by Virgin Group founder Richard Branson. While few specifics have been outlined, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund said in a statement that it “will be governed by laws on par with international standards,” meaning it is likely visitors will be exempt from the strict dress code, gender segregation and restrictive guardianship rules where men can dictate the life decisions of their female relatives. Alcohol may also be served in the area. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is believed to be one of the driving forces behind these changes, in an attempt to increase tourism revenue.