Saudi Arabia to offer tourist visas for the first time

Locations such as AlUla (shown above), NEOM, and the Red Sea are all being touted as potential tourist locations. (SPA photo)
Updated 03 October 2019

Saudi Arabia to offer tourist visas for the first time

  • Tourists from 38 countries in Europe, 7 in Asia, as well as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, will be eligible to apply for the new visas
  • Tourism chief says foreign women are not required to wear abayas, provided that they wear “modest clothing”

RIYADH: Saudi Arabia on Friday formally announced that tourist visas will be issued for the first time to visitors from 49 countries around the world.

The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) made the announcement at an event in Ad-Diriyah, an ancient city that is now a leading tourist destination.

Kickstarting tourism is one of the centerpieces of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform program to prepare the biggest Arab economy for a post-oil era.

At the launch event that coincided with World Tourism Day, the president of SCTH Ahmed Al-Khateeb said that “the Kingdom opens its doors to the world at this historic moment, and we are a people that welcomes visitors and offers hospitality to guests.”

He added that international investors had agreed to invest SAR115 billion ($30 billion) into the tourism sector on Friday.

“Opening Saudi Arabia to international tourists is a historic moment for our country,” Tourism chief Ahmed Al-Khateeb said in a previous statement.

“Visitors will be surprised... by the treasures we have to share — five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty.”

Al-Khateeb said the Kingdom will also ease its strict dress code for foreign women, allowing them to go without the abaya robe that is still mandatory public wear for Saudi women.

Foreign women, however, will be required to wear “modest clothing,” he added, without elaborating.

Tourists from 38 countries in Europe, 7 in Asia, as well as the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, will be eligible to apply for the new visas. 

These will cost SR300 ($80), with an additional cost of SR140 for travel insurance, sources earlier told Arab News.

The visas will be valid for 360 days from the date of issue for stays of 90 days or less, and for a total of no more than 180 days in a single year.

For residents of those 49 countries, visas will be obtainable online via a seven-minute application process, or on arrival at machine kiosks or special counters in any of Saudi Arabia’s four international airports.

Applications for the tourist visas will commence on Sept. 28. The visa announcement was teased via a website and on social media by way of a video campaign, hashtagged “Where in the world?” which featured several shots of Saudi landmarks and natural wonders, prompting viewers to guess where they might be.

According to SCTH, the website has garnered over 94 million views since going live. SCTH announced on Thursday night that they have established a SR15 billion fund to support tourism projects across the Kingdom, according to reports.

They also said that they had conducted field research by inviting 100 “invisible tourists” to Saudi Arabia to gauge public reaction to their presence, but also to garner their feedback on how they found Saudi Arabia and what could be improved.

Marketing Saudi Arabia as a tourist location is one of the main goals of Vision 2030, the Kingdom’s ambitious plan to move the country away from its heavy reliance on oil as its main source of income.

While religious tourism has also been a key factor in Saudi Arabia’s income, with pilgrims from all over the world coming to Saudi Arabia to visit the holy sites of Makkah and Madinah, the government has been keen to market the rest of Saudi Arabia as a tourist destination as well.

Locations such as AlUla, NEOM, and the Red Sea are all being touted as potential tourist locations, with many other areas of the country preparing to meet the expected crowds as well. SCTH told reporters at the press conference that there are 10,000 historical locations all over the country, five of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites.
 


Blessing in disguise: How pandemic was a catalyst for Saudi SMEs to change

Saudi Arabia’s consumer behavior was transformed during the lockdown as soon as malls and stores were ordered to shut their doors, creating a frenzy among consumers. (SPA)
Updated 20 September 2020

Blessing in disguise: How pandemic was a catalyst for Saudi SMEs to change

  • E-platforms played a crucial role in SMEs’ survival
  • COVID-19 transformed people’s shopping habits

JEDDAH: Saudis continue to shop online despite the government easing the COVID-19 lockdown, with the surge in e-commerce prompting small and medium-sized enterprises to adapt.

E-commerce saved global retail markets from collapse and stopped consumers from having to go out during the first wave of the outbreak. However, SMEs were the most vulnerable to the pandemic’s consequences and e-platforms played a crucial role in their survival.
Saudi Arabia’s consumer behavior was transformed during the COVID-19 lockdown as soon as stores were ordered to shut their doors, creating a frenzy among consumers although they were quick to adapt. SMEs were also forced to adapt, not only to accommodate the growing demand for online shopping but to ensure they survived with minimal losses.
Marion Janson, the chief economist at the UN’s International Trade Centre, said in June that around 20 percent of SMEs globally may not survive the pandemic.
A recent report from Visa revealed increased anxiety among merchants in Saudi Arabia, with 67 percent of small businesses noticing a decrease in average consumer spending.
Many Saudi consumers started shopping online for the first time, primarily for essentials. The Visa report showed that two-thirds of the Saudi consumers surveyed said that COVID-19 led to their first online grocery purchase, while 59 percent made their first online purchase from pharmacies.
“With the confusion at the beginning, we didn’t know what was acceptable and what wasn’t,” said Dr. Suhad Zain, a government employee in Jeddah. “Can we risk going out to shop for our daily needs or not? We needed to be sure that everyone in the house was safe, including the driver, and not expose ourselves to the invisible menace that changed our lifestyles. Most of our groceries were obtained online, from produce to water bottles to even appliances and leisure items. It had to be done, even though we needed time to accept the new change.”
Fear of the virus is expected to change the way consumers behave forever. “It became more convenient even after the lockdown was lifted,” Zain added. “After a few months we got used to it and, as a family, it became our new preferred means of purchase.”
Such conditions were a catalyst for online commerce, according to the Visa report, with 38 percent of merchants in the country reporting the introduction of online offerings as a direct result of the pandemic while more than half had an e-commerce presence before the pandemic.

Two-thirds of the Saudi consumers said COVID-19 led to their first online grocery purchase, while 59% made their first online purchase from pharmacies. (GettyImages)


The report also said there was a surge in e-commerce, a preference for trusted brands, a decline in discretionary spending, and a polarization of sustainability. Consumers have a larger basket, but reduced shopping frequency, and will shift to stores closer to home. A change can easily be detected in Saudi consumer behavior.
But the shift to online commerce, with cash transactions being replaced by digital payments, has negatively influenced cash-only retailers and presents a tough challenge to these merchants, who have to understand the shift in consumer behavior and adapt accordingly and urgently.
“Saudi business owners currently face multiple challenges that they need to deal with when they want to shift to e-commerce, some of them even lack the knowledge of how technology could benefit them and what options it could offer,” Talal Abdullah, a business development and marketing consultant, told Arab News.
“Also some will need to find a technical partner to successfully transform to e-commerce and, most importantly, they need to revisit their business model canvas to determine how they want to employ this technology for the best of their businesses.”
In order to overcome these challenges, Abdullah suggested that business owners look for the right technical partner based on their new model.
“If they fail to find a suitable technical partner, then they need to set a clear budget for the application or website they need to set up. But before reaching out to any company that offers support with these technical services, you must get in touch with real clients of these companies and inquire about their business and how they deal with them.”
He added that seeking assistance from technical consultants or owners of similar projects could cut down on time and effort. Joining business accelerators and incubators, as well as entrepreneurship and technology communities, could help with expanding knowledge and relationships and contribute overall to a smoother transition.
But these changes have their costs too, imposing new financial burdens on an already weakened business due to the pandemic and the time required to build and adapt a new business model that targets a completely different group of customers. It is a serious challenge for many small retailers.
Abu Mohammed has been in the retail business for 20 years. He used to have frequent customers who came in for a specific type of clothing with a certain price range. But, with the lockdown, he could hardly sell anything.
“I began targeting a different kind of customer in the past couple of years where I was importing new clothes and selling them through Instagram and e-commerce websites,” he told Arab News. “However I still cannot completely substitute my current store with a completely virtual one. That needs time and money to build a reputation.”
He said the lockdown had been a harsh experience for him and that he recognized the need to expedite his old plans to transform his store into an actual brand, since people were gradually moving toward online shopping from well-known brands.
“This transformation is not going to be easy at all,” he added. “It will need a good marketing plan and well-spent money not only on tools but also staff. It is a completely new experience, however. I know e-commerce is here to stay and it is our only way forward. Otherwise my work for years will gradually vanish. This crisis could be a blessing in disguise, who knows.”