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Saudi Arabia to offer tourist visas for first time

Before change, visas were mostly restricted to religious and business trips
For first time, Saudi Arabia will offer tourist visas to those wishing to visit kingdom (AFP/File photo)

Saudi Arabia will, for the first time, offer tourist visas to those wishing to visit the kingdom, its tourism chief said in a statement, AFP news agency reported. 

The move, which took effect in Saudi Arabia on Friday morning, is part of a push to diversify its economy away from oil.

"Opening Saudi Arabia to international tourists is a historic moment for our country," tourism chief Ahmed al-Khateeb said in the statement.

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Planned earlier this month, tourists from 49 countries, including unaccompanied women,  will be able to obtain a 90-day visa for a fee of $80 (£65). Access to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina is restricted.

Before the policy change, most visitors to the kingdom were Muslims making the Hajj pilgrimage and visiting holy sites or people on business trips.

The ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom, relatively closed off for decades, has in recent years relaxed strict social codes, like segregating men and women in public places and requiring women to wear all-covering black robes, or abayas.

Under Saudi Arabia's older guardianship law, Saudi women were barred from traveling without permission from an assigned male guardian - usually a husband or family member. 

However, in August, Saudi Arabia issued a series of decrees granting women more personal freedoms, including the right to travel without permission, obtain a passport and register child birth, marriage or divorce. 

Supporters of the Saudi government have promoted the social reforms as part of a modernising drive implemented by the crown prince.

Still, the reforms have been accompanied by a crackdown on dissent, including the alleged torture of some of the activists arrested for campaigning to improve human rights.