Saudi Arabia has announced plans to relax its strict visa rules and allow foreigners to make religious pilgrimages to holy sites within the Gulf kingdom beyond the Grand Mosque in Mecca and the Prophet's Mosque in Medina.
Muslim pilgrims perform their prayers in the Grand Mosque of the holy city of Mecca. Photo: AFP/Fayez Nureldine
Announced out of the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities, the government said it will issue ‘’Umrah-Plus’ visas to foreigners living outside the Gulf Cooperation Council as long as they participate in supervised tours of Islamic holy sites, reports HotelierMiddleEast.com.
Member states belonging to the GCC include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
The Umrah-Plus visa would open up access to the country and allow pilgrims to explore the country beyond the traditional holy sites for up to one month.
Until now, the majority of tourists to Saudi Arabia came from GCC states or nations as the country does not issue tourist visas.
Saudi Arabia is home to two of the holiest mosques in Islam: Masjid al-Haram (also known as the Grand Mosque) in Mecca and Al-Masjid al-Nabawi (also known as the Prophet’s Mosque) in Medina, home of Muhammad’s tomb.
Recently, the country has launched a massive effort to turn the country into a tourist destination, with extensive renovations being made to increase capacity across 27 airports within the next three years, reports HotelierMiddleEast.com.
The country is also pouring money into renovating 30 museums and Islam-themed attractions in key cities.
Tourism is the second biggest industry for Saudi Arabia, which saw revenues rise 10 percent, said the ministry, mostly from Islamic pilgrimages.
It’s estimated that about 3 million people undertake the Hajj pilgrimage to the Grand Mosque every year.
The Koran dictates that every able-bodied Muslim who can afford to do so must undertake the Hajj at least once in their lifetime.