Saudi Arabia to offer visitor visa for special events from December

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RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia will offer an electronic visa for foreign visitors to attend sporting events and concerts from December, the kingdom said on Tuesday, as it tries to diversify its economy and open up its society.

At present, foreigners traveling to the conservative Muslim country are largely restricted to resident workers and their dependents, business travelers, and Muslim pilgrims who are given special visas to travel to holy sites.

Plans to admit significant numbers of tourists from abroad have been discussed for years, only to be blocked by conservative opinion and bureaucracy.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is seeking to develop new industries to wean Saudi Arabia off dependency on oil exports. Economic reforms aim to lift total tourism spending in the country - by local citizens as well as foreigners - to $46.6 billion in 2020 from $27.9 billion in 2015.

The “sharek” visa process will be introduced in time for a motor race on Dec. 15, according to a statement by the General Sports Authority (GSA).

“We hope the Saudia Diriyah E Prix will see fans from around the globe come to Saudi Arabia to watch this epic sporting spectacle as now your ticket is your visa,” said Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki al-Faisal, vice chair of the GSA.

A promotional video seen by Reuters said the new visa would grant holders “free mobility within specific Saudi territories” during, before and after an event. The holy cities of Mecca and Medina remain off-limits for non-Muslims.

Applicants will be able to obtain 14-day visas online for 640 riyals ($170.65) and enter from any port of entry.

($1 = 3.7503 riyals)

Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Alison Williams and Raissa Kasolowsky