DUBAI, May 2 (Reuters) Saudi Arabia said today it would start issuing non-religious tourist visas to foreigners in a bid to develop the sector in the conservative Gulf Arab kingdom.
Prince Sultan bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Secretary-General of the Supreme Commission for Tourism, said tour guides would be allowed to operate from June in the country, where tourism has been largely limited to pilgrims visiting Islam's holiest sites.
Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam, sees up to two million people arrive for the annual haj pilgrimage -- a duty for every Muslim. It also issues visas for umra, a lesser pilgrimage.
''There are no exceptions, we want to open up to people who are not coming for umra or for investment,'' Prince Sultan told reporters at a travel conference in Dubai.
Unlike some Gulf Arab neighbours that boast Western-style nightclubs which serve alcohol, Saudi Arabia is not known as a popular tourist attraction, partly due to its strict adherence to Wahabisim -- an austere brand of Islam.
But Prince Sultan said the kingdom, where women are not allowed to drive and must be veiled, would offer its own brand of entertainment, including tours of historic sites, family-oriented activities and sporting events.
''Nightlife can mean anything ... We can provide you a very valuable experience that will hit your soul and your mind and send you home sober,'' Prince Sultan said.
''We will be opening up villages and small towns for local visits. We're looking at resorts, multi-use leisure programs,'' he said, adding that the country would also host conferences and boost internal tourism.
Apart from the holy cities of Mecca and Medina -- which are off limits to non-Muslims -- the kingdom boasts ancient sites including Mada'in Saleh, a 2,000-year-old Nabatean city carved into the rocks of Saudi Arabia's northern desert.
But the country strict moral code, summertime temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius and few signs of tourist infrastructure mean that many Saudis prefer to vacation abroad.
REUTERS DKS RN0027