How Gulf destinations are opening their doors to the world

Gemma Greenwood

By Gemma Greenwood, Director, Content Inc.

The Gulf has already established a formidable reputation as one of the world’s most accessible regions – in fact, it’s the very foundation of its tourism success story.

Dubai International (DXB), now the busiest airport in the world for international passenger traffic, witnessed throughput of more than 78 million travellers in 2015, boosted by the growth of some 100 airlines that connect the airport to more than 240 destinations around the world, most notably, Emirates and flydubai.

This represented 10.7% growth on 70.47 million passengers in 2014, with DXB on track to report 83 million passengers in 2016, according to Dubai Airports CEO Paul Griffiths.

Dubai’s aviation industry is intrinsically linked to the success of the emirate’s economy and of course, its booming tourism sector, with 14.2 million visitors flocking to the city in 2015, Dubai Tourism figures reveal.

And with the development of Dubai’s second airport, Al Maktoum International well underway, Dubai’s status as the best connected city in the world will be firmly cemented.

Abu Dhabi International is also growing passenger throughput at a fast rate, with 2015 witnessing the airport’s best performance yet. Passenger numbers hit a record 23 million, up 17.2% on 2014, with a large proportion of the traffic increase attributed to the robust performance of the UAE’s national carrier, Etihad Airways, which serves more than 116 passenger and cargo destinations around the world and carried 17.4 million passengers in 2015, up 18.4% on 2014.

With the completion of the airport’s Midfield Terminal Building (MTB) anticipated next year, Abu Dhabi is looking to elevate its position as a leading international aviation and business hub and with passenger growth at AUH currently hitting the 8-10% mark, Abu Dhabi Airports anticipates that passenger traffic will exceed 45 million within the next decade.

Further afield and Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Oman are also continually improving their accessibility by air, linking all four corners of the globe through their respective hubs.

But it’s not just air connectivity that’s solidifying the Gulf’s position as one of the most accessible regions.

During the past few months, the UAE and Qatar have both announced progressive visa policies that will prove a quantum leap in developing tourism destinations that are open to all.

The UAE has announced it will grant visas on arrival to visitors from China as it looks to strengthen its relationship with the Republic, which is a crucial trading partner.

The news was announced via a tweet from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, who said the move affirmed the Gulf state’s “important relationship with China”.

China is one of the UAE’s fastest-growing source markets for tourism arrivals too.

In 2015, visitors from China to Dubai increased 29% year on year to 450,000. The Republic was also the best performing tourism market for Abu Dhabi last year in terms of growth, with visitor numbers up 47% on 2014.

The UAE is not the first Gulf state to offer Chinese visitors visas on arrival. At the end of August, Qatar Airways group CEO Akbar Al Baker announced that citizens from China, India and Russia – the world’s three ‘super powers’ in terms of outbound tourism growth potential - would be granted visas on arrival in Doha by the middle of 2017, in a bid to boost arrivals to the Gulf state.

Qatar has gained quick notoriety as one of the region’s leading pioneers of progressive visa policies.

At the end of September, the Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA), Qatar Airways and the country’s Ministry of Interior announced a revised tourism visa scheme available to passengers transiting through Doha in a move to promote Qatar as a world-class stopover destination.

The new transit visa structure now allows passengers with a minimum transit time of five hours in Hamad International Airport, to stay in Qatar for up to 96 hours (four days), without the requirement to apply ahead of time for an entry visa. his is a significant increase from the previous transit visa scheme, which allowed travellers with a minimum layover of eight hours to spend a maximum of 48 hours (two days) in Qatar.

The Qatar transit visa is free of charge and available on arrival at Hamad International Airport to passengers of all nationalities, upon confirmation of onward journey and completion of passport control procedures.

The development, announced on the eve of World Tourism Day, is the third in a series of enhancements that Qatar has made to facilitate entry into the country for visitors.

Last month government officials announced a new process to quicken the entry of tourists arriving on board cruise ships, and also signed an agreement with VFS Global, which will see the development of a new, faster and more transparent tourist visa application mechanism.

In a nod to Qatar’s solid progress in the development of advanced visa policies, UNWTO Secretary General Taleb Rifai said: “Promoting visa facilitation is a priority for tourism development worldwide and a key element in the competitiveness of tourism destinations. We congratulate Qatar for announcing, very auspiciously on the occasion of the World Tourism Day, a new milestone in the country’s transit visa scheme.”

Gulf destinations have realised that to be truly accessible and hit the ambitious tourism targets they have set out, a holistic approach must be taken, involving many facets, from air connectivity and passenger experience, to visa rules for all travellers whether arriving by air, sea or in transit.

This all-encompassing strategy spells good news for tourism industry growth and sets new industry standards other destinations around the region can emulate to their long-term benefit.

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