On September 27, 2019, in another major step toward economic and social reform, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced the launch of a tourist visa program. According to the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTH), tourist visas will be issued starting on September 28, 2019 on a one-year, multiple-entry basis, allowing tourists to spend up to 90 days in the country. The program is expected to offer tourist visas to citizens of 49 countries—including Australia, Brunei, Canada, China, Japan, Malaysia, most European countries, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, and the United States. This list is subject to additions or adjustments at the discretion of the Saudi government. Tourists will be able to apply for visas online (e-visas) or upon arrival in the Kingdom during the admissions process (visas-on-arrival).

Previously, the work visit and Hajj visas were the main non-immigrant visa options for travel to the Kingdom. Most visits to the Kingdom have been on a work visit visa, which requires a legitimate business purpose and, in most cases, a letter of support from a business in the Kingdom. Citizens from the few visa-exempt countries—most recently, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the UAE—can continue to enter the Kingdom by using a national ID card instead of a passport.

The new tourist visa program marks a significant transformation for the Kingdom and is in line with Vision 2030, its flagship initiative to diversify its economy and reduce its dependence on oil revenue. The program is expected to bring major economic benefits to the Kingdom by encouraging foreign investment in and attracting tourists to the country. According to the SCTH, the Kingdom plans to increase tourism rates from 40 million to 100 million visits and airport capacity by 30%, as well as to increase tourism-related jobs from 3% to 10% of GDP, by the year 2030.

In parallel, the Kingdom is backing major cultural, sports and entertainment projects throughout the country, including in its capital, Riyadh, through collaborations with the Public Investment Fund (PIF)—the Kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund—and private local and foreign investors. Among these projects is Neom, a planned smart city in the Tabuk province of the northwestern region, and the Red Sea Project, a high-end resort under development in partnership with leading hospitality chains. Other major hotel, entertainment, lifestyle and tourism-related projects are expected to be announced. The Kingdom also continues to ease its “doing business” rules, including by allowing 100 percent ownership in certain Saudi companies and the acquisition of certain real estate by foreign citizens and companies, and to relax social norms, including by allowing movie theaters and co-ed concerts, and lifting the requirement on foreign female visitors to wear an “abaya”—the traditional garb for women in Saudi Arabia.  

Mayer Brown’s Middle East practice has experienced these changes firsthand, advising on the development of a mega-entertainment, retail and residential complex in alliance with the PIF, which was announced at the launch event of the tourist visa program, and on a major campaign to encourage travel to the Kingdom, which was rolled out by SCTH a few weeks earlier in anticipation of the launch event. We also continue to advise on, and have seen an increase in, joint ventures and strategic alliances involving multinational, regional and local companies across a broad range of sectors—including hospitality, real estate, food and beverage, consulting, and banking and finance. Whether on the ground or outside the Kingdom, our Middle East practice, with our Global Mobility practice, continues to work closely with clients on implementing transactions tied to the Kingdom’s economic and social developments, with close consideration of the country’s changing travel, work authorization, and doing business rules.