In March, Maira Omer had a summer holiday itinerary for what she described as “half of the world”, but with endless delays in securing visas, she was left despondent with nowhere to travel to this year.
The Dubai-based Pakistani book editor had Europe on her mind but faced weeks of waiting for visa appointments for some countries while others had no appointments left for this year.
She decided to take matters into her own hands and created an itinerary for her family that included Georgia, Azerbaijan and Croatia.
In the face of long waiting times for Schengen visas, many UAE residents — especially those from India and Pakistan — have set their sights on Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, each of which provides visas on arrival to residents of the Emirates.
“Back in March, we were applying to visit a lot of countries because the restrictions had settled down a little bit … and this year, it was just boom … the world was open,” said Ms Omer, 30, a mother of one.
“Everyone was travelling so much in March, we did try to apply for let's say half of the world.
“Initially, we wanted to travel in May or June because that is when the summer starts over here and the heat gets brutal. We wanted to explore Europe [but] could not find any visa appointments.
“We tried Singapore but there were travel restrictions and we needed an invitation. We tried the UK and Canada and the US, and, in some cases, we were getting the closest [visa appointment] slot in April next year.”
The family were told to check websites regularly in case appointments became available.
She said many of her friends who travelled in the summer applied for Schengen visas back in January or February.
“We couldn't get any [visa] booking slots online and ended up going to the countries that provide visa on arrival … that was because, at that time, we just wanted to get it over with and needed to go somewhere.”
Ms Omer had hoped that visa appointments would open up so that her family could travel in August but found that all slots continued to be fully booked.
“We were desperate. We needed to change of scene and I wanted mountains and nature and something cooler. So, we ended up going for Georgia since it was visa on arrival,” she said.
The family booked a holiday package and their Croatia visa came through at the last minute, allowing them to spend close to two weeks in the three countries.
“These were literally last-resort countries and a lot more affordable. Every country that we visited has always surprised us with just how beautiful the landscape is,” she said.
The National reported in June that long waiting times for Schengen visas and difficulties in completing the necessary paperwork meant residents had little choice but to travel to countries not requiring a Schengen visa.
Although Europe is a top summer destination for many UAE residents, Schengen visas are required by citizens of more than 100 countries before they are allowed to travel to the continent.
Affordability and travel time
Travel agents in Dubai believe affordability, travel times and an array of activities have drawn people to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.
In the past 20 to 25 years, Georgia's dependence on tourism has increased significantly. The number of tourists increased from 85,000 in 1995 to 7.73 million in 2019.
In 1997, tourism revenue stood at $75 million, while in 2020, it was $586m.
Godly Babukutty, owner of Epic Travel in Dubai, said that some of his clients had applied for UK visas and had been waiting for 10 weeks.
“There are several easy places to visit such as Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Serbia, so people are opting to go to these,” said Mr Babukutty.
“From the UAE, we have 50 to 100 couples travelling to Georgia every week, with a majority of these from India, Pakistan and the Philippines.”
Mr Babukutty was in Georgia recently for meetings with business partners to widen offerings and activities for customers due to the increased demand.
“Even people who have travelled to Georgia or Romania once or twice want to travel again because there are lots of things you can do in these countries.
“Also, these countries are affordable and another factor is travel time, which is around three to three-and-a-half hours for these countries. All these countries are easily reachable and we have good connectivity.”
He said families travelling to Georgia could expect to spend Dh2,500 per person for a week.
Hotels see surge
Hotels in Georgia and Armenia have reported a surge in tourists from the UAE.
Antony Doucet, chief experience officer at Kerten Hospitality, who is currently in Tbilisi for the opening of luxury boutique hotel, The House Hotel Old Tbilisi, said there was increased interest in Tbilisi as a destination.
“During the pre-opening phase of The House Hotel Old Tbilisi, we were studying the market and we noticed that the UAE has increased the number of direct flights to Georgia. There are now five direct flights a day from the UAE to Tbilisi, in addition to other flights linking directly to Batumi,” said Mr Doucet.
“Overall, the good value for money, the undiscovered destination for travellers from the UAE and the frequency of direct flights have increased the interest in the country, and we are already seeing more and more inquiries from the region.
“Such is the case with visitors from Saudi Arabia, now that there are direct flights from Jeddah and Riyadh to Tbilisi, as well. If you are looking for an upcoming destination, then Georgia would be the place.”
Mr Doucet said Georgia's status as an all-year destination had contributed to the growing interest from the UAE, especially in the summer when the weather there is cooler.
In the winter months, the mountains have well-developed ski resorts that are much cheaper than those in Europe.
Inna Khostikyan, general manager at Republica Hotel Yerevan in Armenia, said she had seen an increase, although not major, in the number of tourists from the UAE.
She attributed the increase mostly to Indian residents travelling to Armenia.