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GCC tourist permit could pave way for unified visas

Saudi Masjid al-Haram Pixabay/Abdullah Shakoor
Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. Experts predict that Saudi Arabia will benefit the most from the joint GCC tourist visa
  • Joint tourist visa planned for 2025
  • Saudi Arabia likely to gain most
  • Other types of joint visa could follow

Plans to introduce a GCC tourist visa by the end of 2025 could pave the way for other unified visas as the Gulf looks to strengthen its position as an economic bloc.

The region could follow the model of Europe’s Schengen Area – a group of 27 countries – where the visa developed beyond tourism with the introduction of the EU Blue Card, a work and residence permit for non-EU nationals.

Visas to work in more than one Gulf country are currently available only to GCC nationals.

Ali Haider, regional director Middle East and Africa for Nomadic, a startup providing business visa and immigration document services, told AGBI the tourist visa could be the first step in regional visa integration.

“It is entirely plausible that the success of the GCC’s unified tourist visa could pave the way for other types of unified visas, fostering deeper cooperation and enhancing the region’s global competitiveness and its attractiveness to the world’s top talent and leading businesses,” he said.

Earlier this week, Abdullah bin Touq Al Marri, the UAE’s minister of economy, said the visa, which will allow holders to travel across the six Gulf nations – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE – will be introduced next year or 2025.

Haider said the visa represents a “positive step towards regional cooperation, economic growth and modernisation”, and follows a trend of legislative enhancements in the GCC.

Countries such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been introducing new visa categories and e-visa frameworks to make the region more accessible to travellers. 

Self-sponsorship schemes including the UAE’s Golden Visa and Green Visa, and Saudi Arabia’s Premium Residency Scheme also demonstrate the region’s commitment to modernising the overarching immigration framework, he added.

Accessories, Clothing, Formal WearSupplied
More unified regional visas could ‘foster deeper cooperation’ says Nomadic’s Ali Haider

While the GCC tourist visa is expected to promote tourism in lesser-known destinations in the region, John Grant, a partner at UK consultancy Midas Aviation, said Saudi Arabia is likely to be the greatest benefactor of the new move.

“Especially when they have opened their tourism sector further… Dubai and Abu Dhabi will continue to hold their current positions but it’s Saudi that will win,” he said.

Last week, the kingdom added a further six countries to its list of nationalities that can apply for a tourist visa online, taking the total number of countries to 63 as part of a plan to attract 100 million visitors per year by 2030. 

Danielle Curtis, exhibition director of Arabian Travel Market, the region’s largest travel show, said a single GCC tourist visa would be a “win-win” for all involved.

“Eliminating hurdles creates a stronger sense of unity within the GCC, making it easier to promote the GCC globally.”

Olivier Ponti, vice-president of insights at travel industry analyst ForwardKeys, said: “The idea of a regional visa is great, but it is not new.”

In 2014, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda introduced the East African Tourist Visa. A year later, arrivals from Europe and the UK had risen by 12 percent compared with a 9 percent increase in the rest of Africa.

Regional boost

As of the end of 2022, the GCC had a total of 10,649 hotels and 674,832 keys. 

The number of visitors to GCC countries reached almost 40 million last year, soaring 137 percent compared with 2021. The target is nearly 129 million visitors by 2030.

The region aims to increase the spending of inbound tourists by 8 percent annually to $188 billion by 2030, nearly twice the $97 billion expected this year.

To support this, more intra-GCC flights could be added following the launch of the unified visa, said Linus Bauer, founder and managing director of Bauer Aviation Advisory.

“If the new visa policy makes it easier for residents and citizens of GCC countries to travel within the region, it could lead to an increase in demand for flights, necessitating stronger air links,” he said.

“Strengthening air links could facilitate business and trade, especially if the visa policy is conducive to business travel.”

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