Saudi Arabia’s Saudi Seasons 2019 initiative will for the first time give foreign tourists the opportunity to travel throughout the kingdom, courtesy of a new “event visit” visa.
An experimental project, Saudi Seasons maps out 11 tourism seasons for the kingdom, starting with Sharqiah, the Eastern Province, the third most populous after Makkah and Riyadh.
Launched by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH) in early March, the programme is meant to attract large numbers of visitors to the kingdom and provide a roadmap for future tourism strategies.
The first of the 11 seasons, the Sharqiah Season, ran from March 14 to 31 and featured cultural and sporting events and activities.
It attracted 3.2 million visitors from inside and outside the kingdom, significantly higher than the anticipated two million, according to the official Twitter account of Sharqiah Season.
According to the SCTH, 476,000 of the 3.2 million visitors came from outside Saudi Arabia: 210,000 from the neighbouring Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries and the remaining 266,000 from the rest of the world.
The Sharqiah Season focused on the cultural dimension of the Eastern Province, home to historical and heritage sites that include some on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This season also hosted the F1 World Powerboat Championship and an Egyptian opera, which helped pull in international visitors.
The current Ramadan Season runs from May 6 to June 3, followed by Eid Al Fitr, and then the summer season of Jeddah.
“Jeddah Season will run from June 8 to July 18, a total of 40 days. We will have 94 events targeting all ages, both Muslims and non-Muslims,” Udai Master, representative for domestic and international travelers at Jeddah Season told Salaam Gateway.
“Jeddah is a historical and coastal city. We will have sports events and recreational activities, but our focus will be on sea and culture,” he said.
EVENT VISIT VISA
Visitors who want to attend any of the events under Saudi Seasons can apply for an “event visit” visa at their nearest Saudi embassy or consulate.
Introduced in March, the visa is issued within 24 hours, according to SCTH.
“People should enter the city where the season is happening, so if they’re coming to Jeddah Season they should arrive in Jeddah. From there, they can travel throughout the kingdom,” said Master.
The visa will allow the holder a total stay of up to 15 days within the 40 days of Jeddah Season, he added.
One of the attractions is the Jeddah Historical Area, which used to be a major port for channeling goods to Makkah and transporting pilgrims who arrived by sea.
During winter, in December and January, Al-Ula Season will allow visitors to explore the pre-Islamic archaeological site of Mada’in Saleh and the archaeological treasure of the Nabataean civilisation.
According to a report by real estate firm Colliers in partnership with the Arabian Travel Market, international arrivals to the kingdom are expected to increase 5.6 percent per year, rising from 17.7 million in 2018 to 23.3 million by 2023. These figures include umrah and haj pilgrims.
“More relaxed visa access to visas and the growth of the umrah market are expected to be the key drivers of international tourism in the kingdom,” Danielle Curtis, Middle East exhibition director at the ATM, said in a statement.
SCTH announced in December last year that Saudi Arabia would begin issuing tourist visas in the first quarter of 2018. In April, it said it had finalised regulations and submitted them to the government for approval.
(Reporting by Heba Hashem; Editing by Emmy Abdul Alim email@example.com)
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