“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 during the Future Hospitality Summit in Abu Dhabi.
“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.
“The UAE has built an infrastructure to really accommodate all these types of tourism over the years.”
The Emirates' tourism infrastructure ensures the development of all stakeholders in the industry, which includes the food and beverage sector, extreme sports and culture tourism, among others, the minister added.
The development and expansion of the tourism sector is a major aim of the Middle Eastern nations, especially the six-member economic bloc of the GCC, that are looking to diversify their economies away from oil.
The Middle East's tourism sector has recorded the strongest post-pandemic rebound in the world, despite persistent global economic headwinds, according to HSBC.
The region, home to the biggest two Arab economies, Saudi Arabia and the global leisure and commercial hub of the UAE, is unique in recording a “total recovery” in terms of tourist arrivals in the first quarter of 2023, the bank said in its Jet, set, go! research report last month.
Mr bin Touq emphasised that the infrastructure of the tourism and hospitality sector in UAE has been planned for the last four decades, and was not something done overnight.
“It’s always been in organic growth,” he said.
The Covid-19 pandemic posed a challenge for the Emirates’ tourism industry, but it also provided an “opportunity” to review the strategy and plan the way forward, Mr bin Touq said.
Last year's launch of the UAE Tourism Strategy 2031 was a significant step to bolster the tourism strategy. It aims to increase the sector's contribution to Dh450 billion ($122.5 billion) of the UAE’s gross domestic product by 2031, he added.
Mr bin Touq highlighted the rapid growth of tourism projects around the UAE and specifically in Saudi Arabia, which has launched megaprojects, and said they would be beneficial for the whole GCC region.
Growing competition in the tourism sector will play a key role in accelerating the UAE’s GDP growth to 7 per cent by the end of the decade and double the size of its economy, Mr bin Touq said.
“I think competition … actually makes people innovate,” he said. “That's something which is very healthy and important to have in the region.”
Saudi Arabia is pouring in billions of dollars to develop its tourism offering as it targets 100 million visitors a year by 2030.
In July, the kingdom’s sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, set up Saudi Tourism Investment Company, or Asfar, to support the growth of the sector.
This year, the PIF-owned AlUla Development Company launched operations with the aim of turning the city into a global tourism destination.
Saudi Entertainment Ventures (Seven), a wholly owned unit of the PIF, said in November that it planned to invest 50 billion Saudi riyals ($13.3 billion) to develop 21 integrated entertainment destinations in 14 cities in the kingdom.
The UAE is also investing heavily to expand its tourism sector.
In May, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, said tourist spending in the country rose 70 per cent to Dh121 billion ($33 billion) last year, the highest in the region.
The travel and tourism sector is projected to contribute Dh180.6 billion to the UAE’s economy this year, representing nearly 10 per cent of the total, the World Travel and Tourism Council said in May.
“The sector is recovering at a rapid pace, proving the UAE continues to grow in popularity among international travellers,” Julia Simpson, WTTC president and chief executive said at the time.
Abu Dhabi is “on track” to meet its target of attracting 24 million visitors this year, up from 18 million last year, Saood Al Hosani, undersecretary of the emirate's Department of Culture and Tourism, told The National in June.
Neighbouring Dubai, which received 4.7 million tourists in the first quarter of this year, aims to exceed the pre-pandemic annual number of international visitors this year, Issam Kazim, chief executive of the Dubai Department of Tourism and Commerce Marketing, told The National in May.