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Saudi Arabia to offer tourist visas for first time

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Saudi Arabia said Friday it will offer tourist visas for the first time, opening up the ultra-conservative kingdom to holidaymakers as part of a push to diversify its economy away from oil.

Kickstarting tourism is one of the centrepieces of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 reform programme to prepare the biggest Arab economy for a post-oil era.

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The announcement comes just two weeks after devastating attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure — blamed by Washington on Iran — which roiled global energy markets and raised fears of a wider regional conflict.

“Opening Saudi Arabia to international tourists is a historic moment for our country,” tourism chief Ahmed al-Khateeb said in a statement.

“Visitors will be surprised… by the treasures we have to share — five UNESCO World Heritage Sites, a vibrant local culture and breathtaking natural beauty.”

Saudi Arabia will open applications for online tourist visas to citizens of 49 countries on Saturday, Bloomberg News quoted Khateeb as saying.

Khateeb said the kingdom will also ease its strict dress code for foreign women, allowing them to go without the body-shrouding abaya robe that is still mandatory public wear for Saudi women.

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Foreign women, however, will be required to wear “modest clothing”, he added, without elaborating.

Visas in the desert kingdom, endowed with rich bedouin heritage and archaeological sites, are currently restricted to expat workers, their dependents and Muslim pilgrims travelling to holy sites in Mecca and Medina.

Hard sell

In a rare move, Saudi Arabia last year began issuing temporary visas to visitors to attend sporting and cultural events in a bid to kickstart tourism.

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But the austere kingdom, which forbids alcohol and has a strict social code, is seen by many as a hard sell for tourists.

Prince Mohammed is seeking to change that through a sweeping liberalisation drive that has brought new cinemas, mixed-gender concerts and sporting extravaganzas to Saudi Arabia.

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International criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record, including the gruesome murder last year of critic Jamal Khashoggi and a crackdown on female activists, could further put off foreign visitors, observers say.

Fears of a regional conflict after the September 14 attacks on state oil giant Aramco may also dampen the kingdom’s appeal to holidaymakers.

The government, reeling from low oil prices, says it hopes tourism will contribute up to 10 percent of the gross domestic product by 2030, compared to three percent currently.

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It says by 2030 it aims to attract up to 100 million annual visits by both domestic and foreign tourists.

But the kingdom currently lacks the infrastructure to accommodate visitors in such high numbers, with officials estimating 500,000 new hotel rooms will be required nationwide over the coming decade.

The sector is expected to create up to one million tourism jobs, the government says, as it battles high youth unemployment.

Saudi Arabia has splurged billions in an attempt to build a tourism industry from scratch.

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In 2017, the kingdom announced a multi-billion dollar project to turn 50 islands and other pristine sites on the Red Sea into luxury resorts.

Last year, construction of Qiddiya “entertainment city” was launched near Riyadh, which would include high-end theme parks, motor sport facilities and a safari area.

The country is also developing historic sites such as the centuries-old Mada’in Saleh, home to sandstone tombs of the same civilisation which built the Jordanian city of Petra.

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New York’s coronavirus crisis tracked back to European travel — not China: scientists

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The New York Times reported Wednesday that scientists have tracked the cases of coronavirus in New York back to travel from Europe.

The Times explained that genomes show the link to those who came down with the virus back in February.

President Donald Trump has been celebrating his decision to shut down some travel from China, though not all travel. A whopping 430,000 people have traveled from China to the United States since the coronavirus crisis.

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Warrant for journalists from Jerry Falwell Jr. came from Liberty University’s own police

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A right-wing commentator interviewed Jerry Falwell Jr. during his show Wednesday, where Falwell said that there were two arrest warrants open for reporters who came onto Liberty University's campus.

Upon further examination of the warrant, the police officer who signed the warrant was Detective/Sgt. A.B. Wilkins 206 LUPD. The LUPD is not the Lynchburg Police Department nor is there a Sgt. or Detective A.B. Wilkins. It's the police department under the authority of Liberty University.

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Trump defenders Diamond and Silk locked out of Twitter for spreading COVID-19 misinformation

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Fox Nation hosts Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson, better known as Diamond & Silk, were temporarily locked out of Twitter on Wednesday for urging people to go outside and develop immunity against the coronavirus.

“The only way we can become immune to the environment; we must be out in the environment. Quarantining people inside of their houses for extended periods will make people sick!” the pair tweeted from their joint account.

A spokesperson for Twitter told Mediaite their account was locked over the tweet.

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