The Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has announced plans to issue electronic Umrah visas for certain categories of people. The e-Umrah visas will aim to simplify the process of applying for and obtaining the visa for religious pilgrims.
Pilgrims will be able to apply for Umrah visas without going to a Saudi diplomatic mission. Travelers will complete the application process online.
Abdul Aziz Wazan, the undersecretary of the ministry for Umrah affairs, said: “We want to ensure comfortable stay of pilgrims during their pilgrimage in Kingdom starting from embarkation to visits of holy sites, performing rituals and up to return to home.”
He said the eVisas were linked and integrated by various government agencies and would enable the ministry to track the services provided to pilgrims. The government has not announced the launch date for the e-Visas.
Until the e-Umrah visas are available, pilgrims need to apply for a Hajj or Umrah visas to make religious journeys in Saudi Arabia. Pilgrims can apply for Hajj visas between Mid-Shawwal and 25th Dhual-Qa'dah through licensed travel agents.
Muslim female pilgrims traveling to Saudi Arabia for the Umrah or Hajj must either be accompanied by an immediate family member (father, brother or son). Accompanying males must be over 18 or be over 45 and traveling with female passengers of the same age.
Wider plan to open up Saudi Arabia
The e-Umrah visas are part of a wider government plan to open up the country to visitors. In December 2013 the government announced plans to start issuing tourist visas for the first time in its history.
Though the government temporarily scrapped the plans, the former Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef resurrected the program in 2016 as part of the country's vision to diversify the Saudi economy. The Saudi economy has been oil-dependent historically but the government hopes tourism will grow and contribute significantly to the country's GDP.
The Saudi Arabia eVisa is expected to be launched over the coming months. It will be available for many tourists including citizens of the US, all Schengen member countries, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and South Africa.
Applicants will just need to complete the online form and pay a fee using a credit or debit card. Travelers will then receive their eVisa by email once the Saudi authorities have approved the application.
The online application form will include a range of questions. Applicants will need to enter information such as their name, address, date of birth, passport details, and travel plans. There will also be questions related to health and security.
Saudi Arabia has also welcomed Uber and Six Flags parks as further steps to boost tourism. It is likely that more international businesses and franchises will be welcomed into the country over the coming years.