The vaccinated Saudis were able to leave the kingdom for the first time in more than a year on Monday, as the country facilitated a ban on international travel aimed at containing the spread of the coronavirus and its new variants.
For the past 14 months, most Saudi citizens have been banned from traveling abroad because of concerns that international travel could fuel the outbreak of the virus in the country of more than 30 million people. The ban, in effect since March 2020, has affected, among others, Saudi students studying abroad.
In recent months, however, the kingdom has vaccinated nearly 11.5 million residents with at least one stroke of the COVID-19 vaccine, making them eligible to leave the country on Monday under the new guidelines. Authorities will also allow people who have recently recovered from the virus and children under the age of 18 with travel insurance to travel abroad.
The easing of the rules caused a rush of tourists to leave the kingdom, after the Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr.
“It’s a beautiful feeling after such a long absence from Bahrain,” said Mohammed, a Saudi traveling to the island nation.
Saudi travelers must show their health status to airport officials through the government’s health app, Tawakkalna. Travelers returning from abroad will have to quarantine at home and be tested for the virus.
The kingdom, which has covered coronavirus-related hospitalizations for citizens and residents, imposed some of the most important measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at the start of the pandemic. They include closing mosques and businesses for several weeks at a time, drastically reducing the Hajj’s annual pilgrimage to Mecca, and sealing its borders to travelers.
Travelers flew to Saudi Arabia’s airports on Monday to search for flights abroad.
“We have been confined within Saudi Arabia for about a year and a half, so we can hardly believe that the ban will be lifted and we can see the world,” said Nawaf al-Askar, a Saudi traveling from Riyadh to Bosnia. and Herzegovina with his family.
Other travelers left to resume their studies abroad or for late business trips. “We have been dreaming [of travelling] for more than a year … Thank God the airport is open and we can escape, ”said Saleh, a Riyadh resident.
However, a recent list of countries for which direct or indirect travel is restricted includes a number of high-risk countries, including Lebanon, Yemen, Iran, Turkey, and India.
The Saudis, however, will be able to cross neighboring Bahrain again via King Fahd Road starting Monday, as restrictions are eased, local media reported. The small island nation where the sale of alcohol is legal under specific rules is a popular destination for Saudi residents and others looking for a short vacation.
The kingdom’s flagship carrier, Saudia, will operate flights to 71 destinations, including 43 international destinations, starting Monday. These include Cairo, Sharm el-Sheikh, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Paris, Athens, Frankfurt, Washington and New York.
With a limited exception, foreigners from 20 countries (including the United States, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and France) are barred from entering the kingdom.
Saudi Arabia has reported more than 430,000 cases of the virus since the start of the pandemic, including more than 7,160 deaths. About 1,400 people remain in critical condition with the virus.
Although tourist visa holders in Saudi Arabia remain banned from entry, the kingdom is aggressively marketing its places to potential visitors.
This week, at the Arabian Travel Market, presented in Dubai, Saudi Arabia largely markets its Red Sea coast and heritage sites such as the ruins of the Al-Ula Desert and the Diriyah Fort outside of Riyadh.
The kingdom had opened up to international tourism in September 2019, just months before the coronavirus outbreak.