Absence of an open skies policy within the GCC and an inflexible visa policy have made travel more expensive, in turn restricting the potential of intra-regional tourism, officials said during the ongoing Arabian Travel Market 2015 (ATM).
Speaking at the UNWTO Ministerial Roundtable at ATM, top tourism officials from the Middle East and Levant said that easing access to the region through cheaper travel and easier visas will promote tourism in a region currently undergoing political turmoil.
Although most GCC countries see a healthy flow of tourists, experts say that the potential is not optimised.
“Around 11 per cent of visitors to Dubai are from the MENA region, while 22 per cent of them are from the GCC,” said Helal Al Marri, Director General of Dubai Tourism and commerce Marketing Helal Al Marri.
“Absence of an open skies policy in the GCC is inflating prices and making travel expensive. People need to travel at a reasonable cost.”
With many pockets of the Middle East facing political disturbances, industry officials reiterated the importance of developing the intra-regional tourism. However, cumbersome visa processes and a large focus on attracting international visitors were some of the factors that discouraged intra-regional tourism, the panel members noted.
In order to improve regional travel, the officials suggested having a common travel permit like the Schengen visa for Europe that will allow tourists to easily move between GCC countries.
Having a free visa for an event or an easily accessible visa were among the suggestions to improve regional travel. Officials also added that the Gulf countries should use mega events to loosen visa restrictions.
“When Qatar is hosting World Cup 2022, try giving free visas or on-arrival visas for all during the one month period of the tournament,” said Taleb Rifai, secretary general of UNWTO.
He also urged Gulf countries against limiting access to certain nationalities over security fears, saying that it will have a negative impact on tourism.
“We need to secure our homelands, but secure it from negative individuals. Use technology to screen people out. Don’t lock out nationalities.”
Rifai added such steps will lead to the Gulf and the Middle East losing out on the economic impact that tourism generates.
Globally, the tourism generated $1.5 trillion in 2014 with 1,133 million people travelling, he said. In the Middle East, the tourists grew by 3.9 per cent with growth mainly focused in the Gulf countries.
Tourism also earned the Arab region $49 billion in revenues last year, the UNWTO head said.