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UK’s offer of visa-free travel to UAE hailed as ‘historic’ step

Skyline of Edinburgh Creative Commons
VisitBritain has launched a £10m campaign to attract visitors to cities such as Edinburgh
  • UAE passport holders can use electronic travel authorisation from 2023
  • Decision is expected to boost trade with Britain, as well as tourism
  • Flights bookings to UK from the Gulf are recovering, says VisitBritain

The addition of the UAE to the list of countries eligible for visa-free travel to the UK is “historic” and will drive further growth in both economies, officials and experts have told AGBI.

The British government announced on Monday that the UAE would be added to its new electronic travel authorisation (ETA) system in 2023, removing visa restrictions for UAE passport holders.

VisitBritain CEO Patricia Yates said: “It is great news. The UAE is a very important inbound tourism market for the UK.

“We know there is strong pent-up demand for international travel from the Gulf and making it easier for visitors to get to the UK is crucial to our message of welcome and to our competitive tourism offer.

“We are working closely with our travel trade partners in the UAE to promote the very best of ‘destination Britain’ to drive bookings, as well as highlighting messages of reassurance and welcome.”

She added: “Ensuring our partners in market are ready to sell Britain is crucial to driving bookings and visitor spending.”

VisitBritain CEO Patricia Yates
‘The UAE is a very important inbound tourism market for the UK,’ says VisitBritain CEO Patricia Yates

Mansoor Abulhoul, UAE ambassador to the UK, said: “Achieving greater ease of travel for Emiratis seeking to visit the UK has been one of our top priorities.

“Their travel to the UK for leisure or business will be hugely simplified. 

“Today’s historic achievement will also serve to strengthen the close diplomatic relationship between the UAE and the UK and spur further growth in our economies.

“It indicates the high regard in which the UAE is held in the UK and internationally.”

The change gives UAE nationals the same visa-free options as passport holders from other key UK partners, including the US and Canada. 

The decision is expected to cement the UK as one of the most popular tourist destinations for Emiratis.

John Grant, chief analyst at OAG and partner of Midas Aviation, welcomed the move and added: “In truth, this will be unlikely to move the needle in terms of demand and travel.

“Those people wishing to travel to the UK were already doing so and there is more than enough capacity available for travellers wishing to reach the UK.”

Olivier Ponti, VP insights at ForwardKeys, said: “Whenever a country makes it easier to obtain a visa, we see increases in travel.”

David Tarsh, managing director at Tarsh Consulting, added: “This will encourage trade and tourism, which will be valuable to both UK and UAE economies.”

Their comments come as figures from the UK’s Department for International Trade show trade in goods and services between Britain and the UAE totalled £13.1 billion ($16 billion) in 2021, an increase of 3.8 percent or £474 million on the previous year. 

UK exports to the UAE amounted to £8.2 billion, down 2 percent, while UK imports from the UAE jumped by over 15 percent to £4.9 billion. 

Raghu Mandagolathur, CEO of Marmore Mena Intelligence, added that the ETA announcement would bring the UAE on a par with the UK’s other key partners.

“UAE has been a key market to the UK in terms of inbound tourism, featuring among the top 10 countries by inbound visitor spending in 2019.

“Almost 75 percent of holiday visitors from UAE (excluding British expats) make repeat visits to UK within 10 years,” he told AGBI. 

“UAE investors have reportedly been showing interest in investing in London property.

“The recent announcement that the UAE nationals will no longer require a visa to visit the UK brings UAE on par with UK’s key partners.

“The diplomatic, trade and investment relations between the two nations have been growing in the last few years. Easing the travel for UAE visitors will further spur cultural and economic ties between the UK and UAE.”

Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta, head of strategic development, MENA at Apex Group, and a former managing director and chief operating officer at UK Export Finance, agreed, adding: “Visa-free travel definitely will help tourism but when it comes to trade and financial services, it’s more about making it optically easy to do business between the UK and GCC.

“You can literally jump on a plane and go do business without the 2-3 weeks of delays before you get a visa. This ease of doing business will substantially lift all sectors and boost the UK-GCC trade corridor.” 

The UAE was the UK’s 24th largest trading partner last year, accounting for 1 percent of total UK trade.

According to VisitBritain, flight bookings to the UK from the Middle East have been showing indications of strong recovery. Over the past two months, bookings have caught up with levels seen at the same time in 2019.

Earlier this year, VisitBritain launched a £10 million global campaign in Dubai to drive inbound tourism.

The agency’s Welcome to Another Side of Britain campaign puts the spotlight on cities hit by the absence of international visitors during the pandemic. 

Inbound tourism was worth more than £28 billion to the UK economy in 2019, its third largest service export and a major part of British trade.

The visa-free travel announcement came just days after the UK’s trade secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, launched the UK-GCC negotiations in Riyadh, which are expected to culminate in a free trade deal worth £1.6 billion a year to the UK economy.

London skyline
London’s skyline. UAE visitors tend to stay longer and spend more than other tourists. Picture: Creative Commons

Visiting the UK

  • In 2019, the UK was the most visited destination outside the Gulf by tourists from the UAE
  • There were 553,000 visits to Britain from the UAE, with those travellers spending £869 million
  • Visitors from the UAE tend to stay longer and spend more in the UK than the all-market average. In 2019, they spent £1,572 on average, which is more than double the all-market figure, and stayed for nine nights. The average stay is seven nights 
  • Before the ETA system goes live in 2023, UAE nationals visiting the UK can continue to use electronic visa waivers. These are completed online before travel. A small fee is applied, but there is no need to provide biometric information (photo and fingerprints), attend a visa application centre or hand in your passport
  • Last month, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain joined other GCC states that have electronic visa waiver status for the UK

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