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Saudi reveals post-Covid entry policy in tourism push

Air travel took a massive hit globally as the pandemic took hold. Picture: Creative Commons
Air travel took a massive hit globally as the pandemic took hold. Picture: Creative Commons

Government white paper proposes simplifying health-related entry protocols for travellers to the kingdom

Saudi Arabia is working to introduce a shared framework by which countries can share information on local and global health crises to prevent disruption in air travel to and from the kingdom.

The proposed policy, called Harmonising Air Travel and set out in a white paper from Saudi Arabia’s General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) this week, aims to reduce confusion over travel requirements that GACA says has discouraged millions of people from booking flights in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Research by YouGov cited by GACA found that 32 percent of people in the US, 47 percent of people in the Arabian Gulf, 40 percent of people in Italy and 40 percent of people in the UK say that confusion over health requirements will prevent them from travelling in 2022.

Had GACA’s policy been implemented in the pandemic-hit period from March 2020 to September 2021, it would have added US$1.1 trillion of beneficial economic impact globally, the white paper claims.  

“The policy framework will help to limit the magnitude of lost traffic due to a health crisis by allowing states to rapidly exchange information on their evolving situations and through implementation of the ‘safe flight’ concept,” said a briefing note on the policy, unveiled at the inaugural Future Aviation Forum in Riyadh on Monday. 

Saudi Arabia proposes the introduction of a four-pronged “universal framework” to streamline health information protocols, including a harmonised reporting system for all countries; updated communication systems for participating states and other stakeholders such as airlines; new governance and coordination mechanisms, and a compliance mechanism to ensure the rules are being adhered to. 

The draft policy is “borne out of the challenges we have witnessed with Covid, but it is not a Covid policy”, the briefing note added. “It is a policy designed to support resilience in the global aviation response to any future health crises that may occur and simplify current health-related protocols for passengers.”

It would also help to increase the speed of recovery for passenger traffic following the development and roll-out of appropriate treatments such as vaccines.

The proposed international reporting mechanism was designed in collaboration with the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organisation and would take the form of a single online resource setting out requirements for entry to all participating countries. 

Saudi Arabia hopes the new policy would boost the recovery of the global aviation sector, which was hard hit during the pandemic with airlines forced to ground their airlines amid an abrupt slowdown in global air travel. International passenger demand in 2021 plummeted by 75.5 percent compared to 2019 levels, according to the latest figures from the International Air Transport Association (IATA). 

Saudi Arabia also wants to boost its own fledgling tourism industry, which is gathering momentum with the development of major hospitality mega-projects across the kingdom such as Neom, and new visa rules to encourage visitors. 

Saudi-based travel giant Seera Group on Monday reported substantial growth for the first quarter of 2022 compared to the previous year and said the removal of many travel restrictions across the world has unleashed pent-up demand from travellers while interest in domestic tourism remains high, with Saudi Arabia’s many entertainment events drawing travellers across the Kingdom.

Majed Alnefaie, CEO at Seera Group, said: “2022 has kicked off with an incredibly positive start to the year… Travel is back and 2022 is going to be a very positive year for Seera Group and the travel industry as a whole.”

International arrivals are forecast to grow by 165.4 percent to 10.6 million in 2022 following a 3 percent contraction in 2021 on the back of the pandemic, according to Fitch Solutions. By the end of 2026, the kingdom is forecast to double the figure to 23.9 million.  

Saudi Arabia aims to become the Middle East’s pre-eminent aviation hub, by generating SR365 billion, or just under $100 billion, of investment in its aviation sector by 2030 under its Vision 2030 economic transformation plan. 

“The pandemic exposed how disconnected the world really is,” said Abdulaziz bin Abdullah al-Duailej, president of Saudi Arabia’s GACA. “Our research shows that many people chose not to travel in 2021 – and will not travel in 2022 – because of confusing health requirements to get from country to country.  

“Aviation is the lifeblood of the global economy, and it is crucial to safeguard it from future disruption. The Harmonising Air Travel policy framework demonstrates the leadership role Saudi Arabia is taking to ensure that the sector thrives in the years to come.

“It will unify and strengthen our industry by enabling it to navigate future health crises.” 

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