Although the coronavirus pandemic has forced travel to a halt and slammed international borders, unprecedented reforms underway in the Middle East will make travel in the region easier than ever, once the world reopens.
Relaxed visa requirements, shifting policy and new transport links promise to attract more visitors to the region, which before the pandemic had the fastest growing international arrival rate and double the global average, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organization.
Due to the pandemic and the piecemeal, country-by-country developments, this huge shift across the Middle East has gone largely unnoticed.
Saudi Arabia launches very first tourist visas
Saudi Arabia has long been a difficult place for the casual traveler to visit, but in September 2019 the country started broadcasting tourist visas for the first time. Previously, only Muslim pilgrims, resident workers and business travelers could enter Saudi Arabia, but now tourists from 49 countries in North America, Europe and Asia can apply for a visa online for 440 Saudi riyals ($ 120) or get one on arrival.
Saudi state television reported the country welcomed 24,000 visitors within the first 10 days of the launch of the tourist visa, and it aims to attract 100 million tourists every year by 2030.
Saudi Arabia constitutes 80% of the Arabian Peninsula in terms of landmass and borders seven countries, making it possible for the first time to travel by land between regions, for example between the Nabataean sites of Hegra and Petra.
UAE, Bahrain agree on normalization with Israel
In September 2020, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed Abraham’s agreements with Israel, marking the first public normalization of relations between Israel and an Arab country since the 1990s.
The move allowed travelers to board direct flights between countries, which was previously not possible. Sharon Bershadsky, director of the Israel Tourism Board in the UK, said 67,000 Israeli tourists flocked to Dubai after the introduction of direct flights at the end of November, although the number of tourists rising. of coronavirus cases has suspended them for the time being.
“Today more than ever, the Middle East is a safe area for international tourists,” Bershadsky said. “The agreements signed with the United Arab Emirates and Israel will offer unique combinations between the two destinations at affordable prices.”
Airlines already flying or expected to use these routes include Etihad Airways, the UAE’s national airline; El Al, the Israeli flag bearer; and Emirates, all of which have extensive global networks. Budget airlines are also coming into the game, with flydubai, Israir and the recently operating Wizz Air Abu Dhabi flights.
Another development is that Israeli planes are allowed to pass through Saudi airspace, which shortens the duration of travel.
Qatar blockade ends
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, closing its only land border and preventing flights and vessels registered in Qatar from using their airspace and their sea routes. More than three and a half years later, countries agreed to restore full diplomatic and trade relations.
Saudi Arabia reopened its border with Qatar, and direct flights have resumed between Doha and Dubai, Riyadh, Cairo and other cities.
Oman eliminates tourist visas for travelers from over 100 countries
Visitors from 103 countries, including the UK, EU, and US, no longer need a visa to visit Oman for two weeks, making the country more accessible, especially for those traveling a short trip. Oman’s previous policy required tourists to apply for a visa online for 5 Omani rials (around $ 13).
“This new change positions Oman on the world map and opens up many possibilities in making Oman accessible to a wider audience,” said Haitham al-Ghassani, acting director of General Tourism Promotion of Oman. “The exemption from entry visas will benefit the entire tourism industry. Tourists from all over the world can now visit Oman quickly without going through the hassle of a long visa process. “
Although the number of international tourists to Oman remains a fraction of those to neighboring UAE, transport links between the two countries are increasing. The Dubai Roads and Transport Authority launched a public bus route between Dubai and Muscat in 2019, with three daily services that stop at Dubai Metro stations and Dubai International Airport, as well as in a number of cities in Oman and Muscat International Airport.
More and more tour operators are offering tours to Socotra Island
About 380 km (236 miles) off the coast of Yemen, Socotra Island is one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, and the mushroom-shaped dragon-blood trees are its most iconic icon. more recognizable. Although the political situation in Yemen remains volatile, more and more tourists have started to come to Socotra.
Lupine Travel, a UK-based tour operator specializing in unusual destinations, started offering tours to Socotra in 2019 and quickly became the company’s second most popular tour.
“Socotra has so much potential, and it could easily become a tourist destination to rival the Galapagos if it is developed the right way,” said Dylan Harris, founder of Lupine Travel. “They’ve never done mass tourism here, but looking after travelers seems to be in their blood.”
Socotra has almost no tourist infrastructure, with basic accommodation available in the island’s capital, Hadiboh, but camping is needed elsewhere. Harris said one of the biggest challenges in organizing tours is getting to Socotra: Weekly flights on Yemen’s national airline, Yemenia, depart from Cairo but are no longer in service.
Felix, another Yemeni operator, flew from Dubai but stopped after just a few weeks. Now Air Arabia, from Abu Dhabi, is the only option, but it is not clear how long these flights will continue.
Shortly after the coronavirus pandemic drove travelers away in the spring of 2020, June saw a coup in which the Southern Transition Council, backed by the United Arab Emirates, “undermined the province’s public institutions,” according to Yemen’s official news agency. Despite the ongoing conflict and logistical challenges, “just before the pandemic hit, there appeared to be new operators offering trips to Socotra on a weekly basis,” Harris said.
Socotra even recently updated guide now, written by longtime travel writers Hilary Bradt and Janice Booth, thanks to a crowdfunding campaign that increased its target amount by £ 7,500 ($ 10,360) in three weeks. Bradt is co-founder of Bradt Travel Guides, a freelance publisher known for covering off the beaten track destinations.
“There’s no question that crowdfunding has raised awareness for Socotra – that’s why we’ve received so many donations,” Bradt said. “The book continues to sell fairly well, despite the inability to go there at the moment. This is the book we wish we had had when we went.
However, national and international political feuds have left Socotra with an uncertain future.
“The interest of tourism would initially be to make Socotra more known to the public,” said Booth. “Then – and we have seen it often in other countries – once tourism begins to demonstrate that the natural assets of a place can be a source of foreign funds, much more effort is made to protect them. . The Socotri themselves are very aware of the value of their heritage and very capable of engaging in harmless ecotourism, but they need the support of a stable government.
Why are these changes happening now?
While these tourism developments appear to be happening at the same time, many have been underway for decades, especially as Gulf countries begin to actively move their economies away from dependence on oil.
“Many countries in the Middle East and North Africa place tourism at the heart of their long-term strategic vision,” said Siamak Seyfi, assistant professor of tourism geography at the University of Oulu in Finland. “The countries of the region are all aware of the considerable importance of tourism as an engine of economic diversification.”
Tourism is also an important tool for the promotion and promotion of the national brand image, offering the possibility of presenting positive images on an international scale while ignoring internal and regional conflicts.
“These stories are often promoted and serve a larger purpose,” said Waleed Hazbun, professor of international relations at the University of Alabama and author of Beaches, Ruins, Resorts: The Politics of Tourism in the Arab World.
“A lot of the stories are there to sell an idea rather than to reflect ‘there are going to be so many visitors’. When you think about these trends, see how far behind politics is. “