Gulf states are all set to fasten their seatbelts

Emirates aircraft await departure from Dubai International Airport. Airlines recorded losses of $126.4 billion in 2020 Dubai Airports
Emirates aircraft await departure from Dubai International Airport. Airlines recorded losses of $126.4 billion in 2020 Dubai Airports

The Arabian Travel Market got under way in Dubai on Sunday, marking the world's first in-person global travel and tourism event since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The four-day conference provides a platform for the tourism industry in the Middle East and beyond. Given the breath-taking pace at which the nature of travel has changed in the past year, the fact that ATM is taking place at all, and involves guests from more than 60 countries, is extraordinary.

According to a World Economic Forum report, nearly 90 per cent of the global population lived in countries with travel restrictions last year. An estimated 25 million aviation jobs and 100 million travel and tourism jobs were said to be at risk at the time. Airlines recorded losses of $126.4 billion in 2020, with the region’s operators set back by $7.9bn.

After a tough year, there are some indications of green shoots ahead, particularly in the Middle East. The Gulf is among the leading regions of the world making positive strides in public vaccination campaigns. This has convinced policymakers that the time has come to open up national borders and establish travel corridors – albeit gradually, with precautionary measures in place.

This month, the UAE established travel corridors with four countries, allowing vaccinated residents to visit Greece, Serbia, Seychelles and Bahrain with no quarantine requirements when they arrive. More are expected. Abu Dhabi emirate, meanwhile, announced that it will drop its own quarantine requirements for most countries from July 1.

On Monday, Saudi Arabia lifted its ban on international travel for its vaccinated residents, with about 385 international flights scheduled to depart from nine airports across the kingdom. Tourism into the kingdom, however, is still paused. It also reopened the King Fahd Causeway to Bahrain after 14 months. This year, unlike in 2020, the annual Muslim pilgrimage Hajj will include pilgrims from abroad.

Meanwhile, Egypt is aiming for tourism revenue of more than $8bn as it aims to attract more than 8 million overseas visitors in 2021. Egyptian officials are in Dubai this week as part of ATM, looking at further ways to boost tourism.

It’s little wonder, then, that Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Dubai’s ruler and Vice President, on Sunday said there was “light at the end of the tunnel” for global tourism.

There are constant reminders, however, that we are not in the post-pandemic era just yet. The slow pace of vaccine delivery in some parts of the world and the emergence of new strains of the virus make travel to and from several countries unpredictable. Even as Abu Dhabi, for example, prepares to open, a ban on entry from India, a severe Covid-19 hotspot, is expected to remain in place for some time.

New waves of the pandemic, such as that being experienced in India, will inevitably be accompanied by travel restrictions. This means that, as long as one part of the world is affected at any given point, travel and tourism will experience ebbs and flows for the foreseeable future. Uneven vaccine delivery has already dampened the tourism industry’s projections, with airlines expected to lose $47.7bn this year.

Amid such uncertainty, global travel cannot be expected to fully rebound for some time. But with the recovery having already begun, there is indeed a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel.

Updated: May 18, 2021 08:57 AM

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