Saudi Arabia has lifted some restrictions on women travelling in the kingdom, with new guidelines allowing women to rent hotel rooms without a male guardian present, and foreign men and women to share a room without proof of marriage.
The easing of stringent regulations governing social interactions comes after Riyadh launched its first tourist visa scheme, as part of efforts to open up the country to foreign visitors and diversify its oil-reliant economy.
The Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage posted the new requirements on Twitter on Sunday, confirming a Friday report by the Saudi daily Okaz.
The commission said women will be allowed to rent hotel rooms with proof of identity – an ID card for Saudi women, residency card for foreign residents living in the kingdom or passport for tourists.
The same would be required of foreign couples, without the need for them to present a marriage certificate. Previously women needed permission from a male guardian to rent a hotel room.
However, unmarried Saudi couples will still need to provide proof of a marital relationship.
“All Saudi nationals are asked to show family ID or proof of relationship on checking into hotels,” the tourism authority said.
Women will also be allowed to rent hotel rooms without any form of identification if they have a male guardian present who does have proof of identity, it said.
Critics note there are limits to the reforms, and point to last year’s killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul and the reported torture of several imprisoned women’s rights activists.
A new push for tourism
Last week, Saudi Arabia announced the new tourist visa scheme, saying it was aiming to increase tourism to contribute up to 10 percent of the gross domestic product compared with three percent currently.
For the launch of its new visa, the country was highlighting five UNESCO World Heritage sites, contemporary art sites and natural sites including the Red Sea, desert and mountains.
Previously, visitor visas were issued only for specific reasons such as for Muslim religious pilgrimages, to visit family or for business.
The one-year, multiple-entry visa scheme allows for stays of up to 90 days at a time and marks the first time the country is allowing foreigners to visit solely for the purpose of tourism.