Tourism chiefs to tour operators say UAE proposals to introduce visit visas for transit passengers will boost footfall, push visitors to see other emirates and inspire people to return for a longer visit.
“This move is a very welcome step in the right direction," said chief executive of Dubai Tourism Issam Kazim.
“We want to move from 10 million in 2012 to 20 million [a year] by 2020 and we need to focus on a much wider pool."
The rising number of Indian visitors means those citizens transiting through the UAE are one obvious target.
“Our campaigns have been significantly increasing the number of Indian visitors and it’s still growing. The potential is big so that’s the easiest one to point to,” he said.
The UAE Cabinet outlined proposals for stopover visas about a week ago. It’s not yet announced when they will be available or how much one will cost but a working group to prepare the new policy has been established.
Citizens of India, Pakistan, parts of the Arab world, Africa and South America currently require a visa for the UAE.
However, Indian visitors can stop over here if they have a US visa. Nandan Porob, sales manager at Almulla Tours, said he’s seen a lot of growth in this specialised market and believes this will now extend to other nationalities, particularly from Asia and Africa.
“Many will come to shop – it can be a shopping stopover,” said Mr Porob, whose company organises half-day Dubai tours of major landmarks for about Dh400.
“Stopover tourism is going to be big.”
On the ground in Dubai, cultural tours of the old city are very popular, challenging incorrect perceptions that Dubai is all malls and skyscrapers.
Nada Badran runs walking tours of the spice markets of Deira and around the historic heart of the Creek through her “Wander with Nada” tour company. From about 300 guests in 2016 when she launched, Ms Badran welcomed 700 last year and now has to turn away people such is the demand. Her company has also surged up the Tripadvisor rankings where the majority of people find her.
“It’s a fantastic opportunity and a very good move,” she said of the plans. “People have a checklist but it’s also about showing them there are alternatives that involve human connections. It leaves a mark on people’s minds and is unlike a souvenir or a photo,” she said.
Ms Badran said the new proposals could transform transit passengers into would-be tourists and inspire them to return for a dedicated visit.
“During peak times though, it may potentially lead to overcrowding in major attractions which can deteriorate the experience for many, including locals.”
Harold Goodwin, responsible tourism advisor to the World Travel Market, echoes this sentiment.
“It’s a great opportunity but what you need to think carefully about is how you distribute the increased number of visitors to benefit the broader tourism economy of the UAE.”
Seawings Dubai has been operating aerial tours across the city for the past ten years.
“We would benefit massively,” said sales official Nik Shetty. “It would open up a huge pool of potential business for Dubai.”
The 45-minute tour offered by Seawings costs Dh1,780, while the snapshot is 20 minutes and costs Dh895. Mr Shetty said they can pick people up at the airport, have them in plane and back at the airport in a matter of hours. “In a six-hour layover, you don’t want to waste two or three hours travelling so why not see all of it in 20 to 45 minutes?”
Critical to the proposals is aviation. The most recent figures show that Dubai is now the busiest airport in the world based on international passengers. Annual passenger traffic at Dubai International reached 88.2 million last year, the airport’s operators said, and it’s home to the world's biggest long-haul carrier, Emirates.
Thierry Antinori, executive vice president and chief commercial officer at Emirates, also welcomed the move. The airline already runs stopover programmes but will possibly offer tailored packages targeting these new tourists.
“Seventy per cent of passengers [transit] through Dubai airport and we can propose this to them in a relevant way. It’s one more reason to fly through Dubai and makes [the city] and the UAE even more of a transit point,” he said.
“Dubai is a point of entry for customers going to Ras Al Khaimah and Ajman and Fujairah or Yas … This development will benefit all UAE.”
Hotels close to the airport could also benefit. Copthorne Dubai is one and for manager, Glenn Nobbs, this could make all the difference.
“It’s very easy for someone who has 12 hours to stay [here] and freshen up so it will generate extra income into the city and will be a good thing,” he said.