Saudi Arabia announced Friday it would reopen its borders to fully vaccinated foreign tourists after a 17-month closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, the state news agency said.
However, Riyadh did not announce any lifting of restrictions on the umrah, a pilgrimage that can be undertaken at any time, which usually attracts millions of Muslims from across the globe each year.
"The Ministry of Tourism announced that the Kingdom will open its doors to foreign tourists, and lift... the suspension of entry for tourist visa holders, starting from August 1," the Saudi Press Agency reported.
It said travellers fully vaccinated with Saudi-approved jabs -- Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson -- will be able to enter the kingdom "without the need for an institutional quarantine period", provided they also have proof of a negative PCR Covid-19 test taken within the last 72 hours and register their details with health authorities.
Riyadh has spent billions trying to build a tourism industry from scratch, as part of efforts to diversify its oil-reliant economy.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
The once-reclusive kingdom began issuing tourist visas for the first time in 2019, part of an ambitious push to revamp its global image and draw visitors.
Between September 2019 and March 2020, it issued 400,000 -- only for the pandemic to crush that momentum as borders were closed.
Covid-19 also hugely disrupted the hajj and umrah pilgrimages, usually a key revenue earner for the kingdom -- in normal times, they together rake in some $12 billion (10.3 billion euros) annually.
Currently only immunised pilgrims resident in Saudi Arabia are eligible for umrah permits.
The government has accelerated a nationwide vaccination drive as it moves to revive tourism and host sports and entertainment extravaganzas, all pandemic-hit sectors.
So far, 26 million jabs have been administered to the population of 35 million, and the kingdom has said that from August 1, vaccinations will be mandatory to enter government and private establishments, including education institutions and entertainment venues, as well as to use public transport.Saudi Arabia has registered more than 523,000 coronavirus cases, with 8,213 deaths.