Vaccinated Saudis were allowed to leave the kingdom for the first time in more than a year on Monday as the country eased a ban on international travel aimed at containing the spread of the coronavirus and its new variants.
For the past 14 months, Saudi citizens have mostly been banned from travelling abroad out of concerns that international travel could fuel the outbreak of the virus within the country of more than 30 million people. The ban, in place since March 2020, has affected Saudi students who were studying abroad, among others.
In recent months, however, the kingdom has vaccinated close to 11.5 million residents with at least one jab of the COVID-19 vaccine, making them eligible to depart the country on Monday under the new guidelines. Authorities will also allow people who have recently recovered from the virus and minors under 18 years of age with travel insurance to travel abroad.
The easing of rules prompted a rush of holidaymakers to exit the kingdom, following the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr.
“It’s a beautiful feeling after such a long absence from Bahrain,” said Mohammed, a Saudi travelling to the island nation.
Saudi travellers are required to show their health statuses to airport officials through the government’s health app, Tawakkalna. Travellers returning from abroad will be required to quarantine at home and be tested for the virus.
The kingdom, which has covered coronavirus-related hospitalisations for citizens and residents, imposed some of the most sweeping measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus early on in the pandemic. They include shuttering mosques and businesses for several weeks at a time, dramatically scaling down the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca and sealing its borders to travellers.
Travellers flocked to Saudi Arabia’s airports on Monday for flights abroad.
“We have been confined within Saudi for around a year and a half, so we can hardly believe the ban is lifted and we can see the world,” said Nawaf al-Askar, a Saudi heading from Riyadh to Bosnia and Herzegovina with his family.
Other travellers were leaving to resume their studies abroad or for long-delayed business trips. “We have been dreaming [of travelling] for more than a year… Thank God the airport is open and we can run away,” said Riyadh resident Saleh.
A recent list of countries for which direct or indirect travel remains restricted, however, includes a number of high-risk nations, including Lebanon, Yemen, Iran, Turkey and India.
Saudis will, however, be able to once again cross into neighbouring Bahrain via the King Fahd Causeway starting from Monday as restrictions are eased, according to local media reports. The tiny island nation where the sale of alcohol is legal under specific rules is a popular destination for Saudi residents and others seeking a short holiday.
The kingdom’s flagship carrier Saudia will operate flights to 71 destinations, including 43 international destinations, starting on Monday. Among them are Cairo, Sharm el-Sheikh, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Paris, Athens, Frankfurt, Washington and New York.
With limited exception, foreigners from 20 countries – including the United States, United Kingdom, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and France – remain banned from entering the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 430,000 cases of the virus since the start of the pandemic, including more than 7,160 deaths. Close to 1,400 people remain in critical condition with the virus.
Although tourist visa holders to Saudi Arabia remain barred from entry, the kingdom is aggressively marketing its sites to would-be visitors.
At Dubai’s in-person Arabian Travel Market show this week, Saudi Arabia is heavily marketing its Red Sea coastline and heritage sites such as the desert Al-Ula ruins and the fort of Diriyah outside Riyadh.
The kingdom had opened up to international tourism in September 2019, just months before the coronavirus outbreak.