Thursday, 10 October 2019

Saudi Arabia: Foreign Unmarried Couples To Share Hotel Rooms But Not Saudi Citizens

Male and female tourists in Saudi Arabia can now sleep in the same hotel room without proof of marriage, the kingdom's officials have announced. Another change will allow women to book hotel rooms by themselves.

In a move aimed at enticing foreign visitors, Saudi Arabia has loosened its strict rules on separating men and women. Previously, all couples were required to present proof of marriage before checking into a hotel together. A new rule will now change things — but only for foreigners.

All Saudi nationals are asked to show family ID or proof of relationship on checking into hotels, the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage said on Friday.

This is not required of foreign tourists.

The kingdom officially enforces a strict interpretation of Islam, which forbids sex outside marriage. Last week, however, the country offered visas to foreign tourists for the first time in a bid to diversify its oil-based economy.

Saudi officials have hailed it as a historic moment.

Saudi Arabia has also introduced other reforms, such as lifting its ban on women drivers in 2018 and, earlier this year, giving women new rights to travel abroad.

The most recent changes also include the lifting of a rule that required women to have a male guardian rent the room for them.

All women, including Saudis, can book and stay in hotels alone, providing ID on check-in, tourist officials said.

While introducing new freedoms, Saudi Arabia has also published a list of 19 decency rules for tourists.

Offenses include public displays of affection, or playing music at prayer times.

Female tourists are expected to wear clothing covering their shoulders and knees.

With the changes, authorities hope to draw in 100 million annual visits by 2030.

The gradual reforms, introduced by the kingdom's de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, also aim to change the nation's archaic image.

However, the efforts have been overshadowed by the brutal murder of exiled journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen and a clampdown on potential rivals and dissidents in the country.

Saudi Arabia welcomed 24,000 tourists in the 10 days after it issued tourist visas for the first time, state television reported on Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia announced on September 27 it would start offering tourist visas, opening up the kingdom to holidaymakers as part of a push to diversify its economy away from oil.

In 10 days, some 24,000 foreigners entered Saudi Arabia on a tourist visa, the television reported, citing the Saudi foreign ministry.

Until September 27, the ultra-conservative state only issued visas to Muslim pilgrims, foreign workers and recently to spectators at sporting or cultural events.

To encourage arrivals, authorities announced on Sunday they would allow unmarried foreign couples to rent hotel rooms together.

Kickstarting tourism is one of the centrepieces of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)'s Vision 2030 reform programme to prepare the Arab world's largest economy for a post-oil era.

Citizens from 49 countries are now eligible for online e-visas or visas on arrival, including the United States, Australia, several European nations, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, China and Kazakhstan.

Tourism Observer

INDIA: Government To Lift Travel Advisory In Kashmir From Today, Tourists Welcome Back Inspite Of Protests

Indian authorities have announced that they will lift the travel advisory in Kashmir that has been in place for over two months. They also said they will gradually remove restrictions on movement in the disputed region.

Foreign visitors will once more be welcome in the India-controlled part of Kashmir, local governor Satya Pal Malik announced on Monday evening.

The travel advisory from the Indian government, which has been in place for over two months, will be lifted from Thursday onward.

On August 2, tourists were told to immediately leave the India-controlled part of the disputed region, named Jammu and Kashmir, following concerns about "terror threats."

More than 340,000 tourists and Hindu pilgrims were forced to scramble for buses and planes out of the region after the Indian government issued the travel advisory.

Malik said in a statement after a security meeting that these tourists would be welcome to return after Thursday, when the "Home Department's advisory asking tourists to leave the valley be lifted."

Only 150 foreign travelers have visited Kashmir since August 5, compared with half a million in the first seven months of the year. The lush Himalayan valley had been a popular holiday destination for Indians and other foreigners, describing itself as a "paradise on earth."

The travel advisory was first announced when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government scrapped the special autonomous status that Kashmir had long enjoyed.

Since then, India has imposed a clampdown on freedom of movement as well as a communications blackout, which is largely still in place.

Malik claimed in his statement that authorities were gradually lifting the curfew, along with internet and telephone restrictions, saying that all the security restrictions were removed in most parts of the region.

How safe the region has become is unclear. The UK and other countries still have travel advisories in place, and local media report that 10 people were killed in a grenade attack at the weekend.

Protests show no signs of abating

Unrest in the region remains widespread, with thousands marching over the last week towards the Line of Control, which divides India- and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, demanding an independent Kashmir.

Meanwhile, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan is in Beijing for talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the security situation in Kashmir.

Both India and Kashmir claim the territory in full. India has received widespread condemnation for its removal of the region's special status, which Prime Minister Modi described as necessary to integrate the region into the rest of India.

There are fears in the region that the removal of the curfew and blackout and a return to business as usual may lead to armed resistance and further protests.

India is to be a unified nation, says Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. People in Kashmir are experiencing what that entails. The region is a tinderbox, also because of Modi's politics.

In his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to blow his own horn: Within 70 days he succeeded in doing what no other government had been able to achieve in 70 years. Make no mistake he got it done.

The only problem is that we do not know what exactly the Indian prime minister achieved. What he did manage was to cut off the Kashmir region from the rest of the world in as far as that is logistically possible.

However, these measures would not have been necessary if his policies had been popular with the region's population. But the people in Kashmir are not as important to Modi as those in the rest of India.

On Indian Independence Day, Modi spoke of India finally becoming one nation with one constitution. Language such as this sounds somehow threatening in such a diverse country. What exactly does Modi have in mind?

In Kashmir, people are just getting a taste of what it means to live in Modi's nation.

They have lost their autonomy at the stroke of a pen. Despite Delhi's promises of prosperity and a golden future, who could blame Muslims if they now feel discriminated against?

However, one should not idealize the past. Even decades of autonomy have not brought peace to Kashmir. However, a strong message has been sent to the Muslim population: Unity will be achieved through force.

There is every reason to fear that the dream of Modi and Hindu nationalists will claim many lives. Pakistan, the other player in the Kashmir conflict, is outraged by Modi's coup but until now, Prime Minister Imran Khan has shown verbal restraint.

He knows his country cannot match its neighbor's military might. Having said that, when he conjures up an ominous threat of a reaction from the Muslim world, his words are not untrue.

At the same time, it is clearly a precautionary attempt to exonerate himself, Pakistan, and its intelligence services from any responsibility for further potential terrorist attacks and bloodshed.

The only realistic opportunity for Pakistan to influence the course of events is to make the issue a priority on the international agenda.

China backs Pakistan, whereas India sees it as a domestic issue. In his speech on Thursday, Modi did not mention neighbor Pakistan once.

However, his silence will do nothing towards bringing about a real prospect of peace to the region neither will his verbose vanity.

The dispute over Kashmir has poisoned relations between India and Pakistan since the two became independent countries in 1947. Here's an overview of how tensions have grown more dangerous over the past seven decades.

Like so many conflicts around the world, the dispute over Kashmir began with independence from a colonial power. In 1947, the United Kingdom gave in to the struggle for freedom in its Indian colony and granted it independence.

The retreating British left behind two states: the secular Indian Union and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

The partition of India in 1947 presented a problem to the then princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, located right along the two new states' northern border.

Traditionally, the state was ruled by a Hindu maharaja or local ruler, but the majority of the population was Muslim.

Hoping to be able to declare his territory independent, Maharaja Hari Singh initially did not join either India or Pakistan, both of which took an interest in this special social constellation in the Kashmir Valley.

To this day, India sees itself as a secular nation in which several religions coexist. This makes Jammu and Kashmir, the only province with a Muslim majority, an important part of India's religious plurality.

At the time, Pakistan saw itself as the home of all Muslims in South Asia. Its founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, envisioned Pakistan and India as separate Muslim and Hindu nations on the subcontinent. Until 1971, Bangladesh, which is located to the east of India, was part of Pakistan.

While the maharaja hesitated to make Kashmir part of either country, in 1947, Pakistani guerrillas tried to bring the principality of Kashmir under their control.

Hari Singh turned to New Delhi for help, and it didn't take long for troops from India and Pakistan to face off.

The first war for Kashmir began in October 1947 and ended in January 1949 with the de facto division of the state along the so-called Line of Control (LoC), the unofficial border line still recognized today.

Back then, the UN sent an observer mission that is still on the ground today. Pakistan has controlled the northern special province of Gilgit-Baltistan and the sickle-shaped Azad Kashmir sub-region since 1949.

The Indian-held section became the federal state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1957, with special autonomous status allowing the state's legislature to have a say in legislation covering all issues except defense, foreign affairs and communications.

The following decades were marked by an arms race on both sides. India began to develop a nuclear bomb and Pakistan also started a nuclear program with the aim of being able to stand up to its giant neighbor.

Today, India and Pakistan have an estimated 140 and 150 nuclear warheads respectively. Unlike Pakistan, India has explicitly ruled out a nuclear first strike.

Pakistan also spends huge amounts on its nuclear program as the country tries to make sure it won't lag behind its neighbor in military terms.

In 1965, Pakistan once again used military force to try to change the borders, but lost to the Indian military. The neighbors clashed for a third time in 1971, but this time Kashmir was not at the center of the confrontation.

Instead, it was the independence struggle in Bangladesh that precipitated the war. India, which supported the Bangladeshi independence fighters, once again defeated Pakistan.

A year later, India and Pakistan signed the Simla Agreement that underlines the importance of the LoC and commits to bilateral negotiations to clarify claims to the Kashmir region once and for all.

In 1984, the nations clashed again; this time over the India-controlled Siachen Glacier. And in 1999, both sides fought for control of military posts on the Indian side of the LoC. In 2003, India and Pakistan signed a new ceasefire — but it has been fragile since 2016.

China, which has a long border with Jammu and Kashmir, also plays a role in this conflict. In 1962, China occupied a part of India that borders Kashmir and entered into an alliance with Pakistan.

Today, China and Pakistan trade via the newly constructed Karakoram Highway, which connects the countries via the western Kashmir region. As part of the multibillion-dollar China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, that corridor is being expanded.

This former gravel road is currently being developed into a multi-lane asphalt highway that can be used all year long. China is investing $57 billion (€51 billion) in Pakistani infrastructure and energy projects, more than in any other South Asian country.

The economic alliance with its powerful neighbor has helped solidify Pakistan's claims to the Himalayan foothills.

The governments of neighboring states are no longer the only parties to the conflict in Kashmir, however. Using violence, militant groups have been trying to disrupt the status quo on both sides of the LoC since at least the 1980s.

Their attacks have contributed to a deterioration of the security situation.

At least 45,000 people have been killed in terrorist attacks over the past 30 years. And the total number of deaths resulting from this conflict is at least 70,000, according to estimates by human rights organizations.

Tourism Observer

AUSTRIA: Garbage Explosion Near Linz Airport, 5 Injured

An explosion rocked a garbage disposal facility near Linz airport in Austria, with police saying five people in total were injured, two of them seriously.

Fire crews from the surrounding area have rushed to the scene.

It’s currently unclear what caused the blast.

Over 250 first responders are at the scene, fighting the blaze and searching for others who may have been injured in the explosion.

Austrian police advised local residents to stay inside with their windows closed.

Officials said that there are no signs that the explosion was caused by a terrorist attack.

There are no indications that the blast was caused by a terrorist attack, a police spokesman said.

Police in Upper Austria province said in a statement that two people were seriously hurt in the explosion in the town of Hoersching that happened shortly after 8 a.m. local time.

At least five people have been injured in an explosion at a garbage disposal facility near the Linz airport, Austrian authorities said on Thursday.

Two people sustained serious burn injuries and were airlifted via helicopter to two hospitals, while three others were slightly injured in the blast, police said.

Images from the scene showed a thick column of smoke rising from the site.

The cause of the explosion was not immediately clear. A police spokesperson said there were no indications that the blast was caused by a terrorist attack.

The incident reportedly occurred shortly after 8:00 a.m. local time (0600 GMT) at the waste disposal plant, prompting a fire to break out.

Over 250 firefighters are battling the blaze, which spread to two warehouses and has proven difficult to put out, reported Austrian public broadcaster ORF.

Over 20 employees at the plant were in the area when the explosion took place. The majority of the workers were able to evacuate safely.

Tourism Observer

MALAYSIA: Malaysian Soldier Arrests King Cobra

A Malaysian soldier from the Tentera Darat Army has been captured on video while cleverly taming a king cobra, which is considered to be the largest venomous snake on the planet.

Cobra tamers always gather a lot of spectators, as the amazing ability to hypnotise venomous snakes seems to be an almost magical gift.

The soldier reportedly noticed the 1.8-metre (6-feet) snake when he was descending a dirt road surrounded by palm trees.

The man started to move strangely, trying to tame the aggressive cobra.

Then the soldier touched the head of the poisonous snake with his fingers and slowly lowered it to the ground, after which he pressed the cobra harder, leading it to begin to wriggle.

Tourism Observer

CHINA: China’s To Slap Visa Restrictions On Certain US Nationals.

Beijing is considering tightening visa restrictions for US nationals with ties to anti-China groups.

The move comes in response to new US visa restrictions on high-ranking Chinese government officials that were announced by Washington on Tuesday, as well as the US’ tighter rules for visas for Chinese scholars, introduced in May.

This is not something we want to do but we don’t seem to have any choice, referring to China’s decision to slap visa restrictions on certain US nationals.

According to the source, a visa blacklist includes employees from a host of US military and CIA-linked institutions and rights groups, which were allegedly used by Washington to incite anti-government protests in both mainland China and Hong Kong.

The plan has been widely discussed by senior police officers over recent months, but was made more likely to be implemented after the Hong Kong protests and the US visa ban on Chinese officials, the source said.

China’s National Immigration Administration, which operates under the Ministry of Public Security, has yet to comment on the matter.

On Wednesday, Beijing lashed out at the grim plans of the United States following the visa restrictions announced by Washington against Chinese officials over allegations of human rights violations in the Chinese province of Xinjiang.

The attitude of the United States regarding the situation in Xinjiang will only further expose their sinister designs against the Chinese people and the international community, China's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang said.

The Chinese embassy in Washington, in turn, protested the US move, which seriously violates the basic norms governing international relations, interferes in China's internal affairs and undermines China's interests.

China deplores and firmly opposes that, an embassy spokesperson said.

The spokesperson added that Xinjiang does not have the so-called human rights issue claimed by the US, and suggested that the accusations by the US side are merely made-up pretexts for its interference.

The remarks follow US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement on Tuesday that Washington had imposed the visa restrictions on Chinese government and Communist Party officials who are believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, the detention or abuse of Uighurs, Kazakhs, or other members of Muslim minority groups in Xinjiang.

The August 2018 UN report claimed that up to one million ethnic Uyghurs were being held in the so-called re-education camps.

Beijing denied the existence of such camps, insisting that the claims have not been substantiated and arguing that the facilities are vocational colleges set up as part of counter-terrorist efforts in the region.

The US and China’s tit-for-tat visa restriction moves come as the two countries remain embroiled in a trade spat which began in mid-2018, when President Trump announced tariffs on $50 billion worth of Chinese imports to help address a $400 billion+ trade deficit that he claimed was caused by China’s unfair trade practices.

Since then, Washington and Beijing have exchanges hefty tariffs against each other.

Tourism Observer