GCC states have unanimously approved the proposed unified tourism visa system for the region, setting the stage for a new era in the highly crucial economic sector.
The system, which is expected to come into effect between 2024 to 2025 across the six-nation bloc, was announced by GCC Secretary General Jassim Al Budaiwi at the 40th meeting of GCC interior ministers in Oman.
The decision is expected to streamline travel logistics and underpins the “continuous communication and co-ordination” between the GCC states, he said.
“The unified Gulf tourist visa is a project that will contribute to facilitating and streamlining the movement of residents and tourists between the six GCC countries and will, undoubtedly, have a positive [impact] on the economic and tourist sectors,” Mr Al Budaiwi said.
The council also approved the electronic linking of traffic offences between GCC states and is preparing a comprehensive strategy to combat illegal drugs, which aims to “contribute to the fight against [its] scourge”, Mr Al Budaiwi said.
The unified visa is a major element of the GCC 2030 tourism strategy, which is aimed at increasing the sector's economic contribution through increased regional travel and higher hotel occupancy rates, Abdulla bin Touq, UAE Minister of Economy, said last month.
The strategy intends to boost the number of visitors to the bloc to 128.7 million visitors by 2030. That is up from 39.8 million last year, which was an increase of about 137 per cent compared with 2021.
The total number of hotels in the region stood at 10,649 by the end of last year, recording a growth of 1.2 per cent, compared with 2016.
Out of that, the UAE alone has 1,114 hotels, ranking second in the region after Saudi Arabia, Mr bin Touq said.
The Middle East's tourism sector has recorded the strongest post-coronavirus 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 UAE, is unique in recording a “total recovery” in terms of tourist arrivals in the first quarter of 2023, the bank said in a research report in August.
The new programme is expected to be a game-changer for the region, according to industry operators.
There is an untapped market for tourism in the GCC bloc, with many travellers put off by visa restrictions that made reaching some nations difficult, they said.
A single GCC tourism visa will be a “fantastic development” for tourism in the region, making it more attractive for visitors and businesses, Dubai Airports chief executive Paul Griffiths told The National last week.
“It's one of those planks in the travel arsenal that will be greater than the sum of its parts … The development of tourism in other countries in the Middle East will make the whole region more attractive and encourage more businesses,” he said.
The more cities there are on the tourism map that encourage people to visit the Middle East, the better the world's perception of the region, Mr Griffiths said.