By Beatrice Thomas
Gulf kingdom halts limited programme allowing foreign visitors to see tourist sites
Saudi Arabia has suspended a limited tourist visa programme until it improves its infrastructure, the country’s tourism chief said, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.
Prince Sultan bin Salman, secretary-general of the Supreme Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), told the press during the Jeddah Economic Forum that the programme, called “Discover! Saudi Arabia”, had been temporarily put on hold to allow the government to focus on developing the tourism infrastructure in the kingdom and make it more attractive to the locals before considering to welcome foreign visitors, WSJ said.
The programme involved tour operators in key overseas markets such as the US and Japan working with national carrier Saudi Airlines to organise trips for small groups of tourists.
It comes as the WSJ reported that the government was preparing to launch a new programme that will allow Muslim pilgrims who come to perform Umrah to visit tourist and historical sites.
The 'Extended Umrah Tourism Programme', to be launched later this month, will give visitors from 65 countries a chance to stay up to a month in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia, home to Islam’s two holiest mosques, issued over 1.7m visas for pilgrims coming to perform Umrah since the season began last December according to a report in the local Al-Riyadh daily.
Prince Sultan was quoted as saying that despite the potential of the tourism industry, the kingdom’s focus was on growing the domestic tourism market by targeting travellers who typically preferred to spend their holidays abroad.