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Pan-GCC visa ‘on the table’ as Gulf region seeks to attract more visitors

A report released by HSBC last month recorded a “strong performance” in tourism recovery in the Middle East.

The United Arab Emirates is reviewing plans to lift the visa requirement for residents of all six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council in a bid to lure in more visitors, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday.

The major announcement came during the participation of the UAE’s Economy Minister Abdulla bin Touq Al Marri at the Future Hospitality Summit in Abu Dhabi, who said the new visa system could be introduced “very soon”.

Expatriate residents make up the majority of the populations in each Gulf country, making a visa-free regime highly beneficial for the economies of all GCC members.

The Emirati statement also comes amid an apparent commercial competition between the UAE and its neighbour Saudi Arabia, with the latter attracting an influx of tourists with new projects and mega events.

In response to a question on the competition between the two nations, Al Marri said “what’s good for Saudi is good for the GCC”.

“If the tide comes up, it pulls up all the boats,” Al Marri noted.

In May, reports unveiled talks within the GCC to launch a single, “Schengen-like” visa that could ease travel across the region. 

At the time, Bahrain’s Minister of Tourism Fatima Al Sairafi confirmed to Hotelier that such discussions were inspired by the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar. Throughout the tournament, the Hayya Card enabled fans from across the region and the world to enter the Gulf state and enjoy football while touring Qatar.

Commenting on the GCC visa, the Emirati economy minister said plans are still underway.

“I think that [a single GCC visa] is something which has been on the table. It’s been complementing all the GCC strategies on tourism,” Abdulla bin Touq said, as quoted by The National.

The Emirati official added: “Hopefully, we are going to see something around a pan-GCC visa, which will allow easier mobility of people within the GCC. A resident of Saudi [Arabia], for instance, can enter the UAE and vice versa. I think that’s where we see the future of GCC tourism.”

Recent rankings and reports have shown a positive region-wide performance in the tourism sector, especially following the previous slow-down due to Covid-19 restrictions.

In June, the president of the Arab Tourism Organization (ATO) Bandar bin Fahd Al Fuhaid assured that the region’s tourism sector has “fully recovered” after losing more than $300 billion during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Al Fuhaid also noted that the number of tourists in the region last year witnessed a 63% spike. 

Separately, a report released by HSBC last month recorded a “strong performance” in tourism recovery in the Middle East.

“The Middle East region saw the strongest performance in terms of recovery in tourism and is the first region in the world to recover beyond pre-pandemic numbers,” Maitreyi Das, an HSBC securities and capital markets economist, said at the time, as quoted by The National.

Much of the positive outlook on regional travel and tourism can be attributed to the major success of the World Cup in Qatar, the first to ever take place in an Arab and Muslim country.

The major sporting event had served as an opportunity to introduce the world to the Middle East where all eyes were shifted towards the host nation. The tiny Gulf state was able to welcome millions of football fans from all over the world with the help of the Hayya card.

In April, authorities in Qatar announced an expansion of the Hayya platform following the success of the entry card during the World Cup, in a bid to attract more tourists who currently require a visa.