While the coronavirus pandemic has forced it to halt travel and close international borders, the unprecedented reforms being carried out in the Middle East will make traveling around the region easier than ever, once the world opens up again.
Relaxed visa requirements, changing policy and new transportation connections promise to attract more visitors to the region, which before the pandemic had the fastest growing international arrivals rate and doubled the world average, according to the World Organization of United Nations Tourism.
Due to the pandemic and the partial evolution, country by country, this huge change in the Middle East has gone mostly unnoticed.
Saudi Arabia launches first tourist visas
Saudi Arabia has long been a challenging place to visit the casual traveler, but in September 2019 the country began 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 an online visa for 440 rials. Saudis ($ 120) or get one on arrival.
Saudi state television reported the country welcomed 24,000 visitors in the first ten days following the launch of the tourist visa and aims to attract 100 million tourists each year by 2030.
Saudi Arabia makes up 80 percent of the Arabian Peninsula by land masses and borders seven countries, making for the first time a transregional land journey, for example, between the Nabataean sites of Hegra and Petra.
The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agree on normalization with Israel
In September 2020, they signed the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain Abraham’s agreements with Israel, marking the first public normalization of relations between Israel and an Arab country since the 1990s.
The transfer has allowed travelers to embark on direct flights between countries, which was previously not possible. Sharon Bershadsky, director of the Israeli Tourist Office in the UK, said 67,000 Israeli tourists visited Dubai after the introduction of direct flights in late November, although the growing number of coronavirus cases has put on hold for now.
“Today more than ever, the Middle East is a safe area for international tourists,” Bershadsky said. “The agreements signed with the UAE and Israel will provide unique combinations between the two destinations at affordable prices.”
Airlines that already want or want to do these routes include Etihad Airways, the UAE’s national airline; The Al, the Israeli flag; and Emirates, all with extensive global networks. Economic airlines are also involved, with flydubai, Israir and the new launch of Wizz Air Abu Dhabi flights.
Another fact is that Israeli planes are allowed to pass through Saudi airspace, reducing travel time.
The blockade of Qatar is coming to an end
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic relations with Qatar, closing its only land border and blocking flights and ships registered in Qatar from using airspace and airspace. sea routes. More than three and a half years later, the countries agreed to the restoration complete diplomatic and trade ties.
Saudi Arabia reopened its border with Qatar, direct flights between Doha and Dubai, Riyadh, Cairo and other cities have been resumed.
Oman eliminates tourist visas for travelers from more than 100 countries
Visitors from 103 countries, including the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United States, no longer need a visa to visit Oman for two weeks, making the country more accessible, especially for those making a short trip. Oman’s previous policy required tourists to apply for an online visa for 5 Omani rials (about $ 13).
“This new change places Oman on the world map and opens up numerous possibilities by making Oman accessible to a wider audience,” said Haitham al-Ghassani, Acting Director General of Tourism Promotion in Oman. “The exemption of entry visas will promote the entire tourism industry. Tourists from all over the world can now visit Oman quickly without the hassle of a long visa process.
Although international tourism figures to Oman remain a fraction of those destined for the United Arab Emirates, transport connections between the two countries are increasing. The Dubai Roads and Transport Authority launched a public bus line between Dubai and Muscat in 2019, with three daily services stopping at Dubai Metro Stations and Dubai International Airport, as well as several Oman cities and Muscat International Airport.
More tour operators are starting to offer visits to the island of Socotra
About 380 km (236 miles) off the coast of Yemen, the island of Socotra is one of the most biodiverse places on Earth and mushroom-shaped dragon blood trees are its most recognized icon. Although the political situation in Yemen remains unstable, more tourists have begun to come to Socotra.
Lupine Travel, a UK-based tour operator specializing in unusual destinations, began offering visits to Socotra in 2019 and quickly became the company’s second most popular tour.
“Socotra has a lot of potential and could easily become a tourist destination to rival the Galapagos if developed in the right way,” said Dylan Harris, founder of Lupine Travel. “They’ve never had mass tourism here, but the care of travelers seems to be in their blood.”
Socotra has almost zero tourist infrastructure, with basic accommodation available in the island’s capital, Hadiboh, but you need to camp elsewhere. Harris said one of the biggest challenges of the ongoing excursions is getting to Socotra: the weekly flights of Yemen’s national airline, Yemen, used to leave Cairo, but they no longer work.
Felix, another Yemeni operator, flew from Dubai, but stopped a few weeks later. Now Air Arabia, which flies from Abu Dhabi, is the only option, but it is unclear how long those flights will continue.
Shortly afterwards, the coronavirus pandemic expelled travelers in the spring of 2020, in June saw a coup in which the Southern Transitional Council, backed by the United Arab Emirates, “undermined the province’s state institutions,” according to Yemen’s official news agency. Despite the ongoing conflict and logistical challenges, “just before the success of the pandemic, it seemed like there were new operators offering trips to Socotra every week,” Harris said.
Even Socotra has a recent update guide now, in the hands of 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 a co-founder of Bradt Travel Guides, an independent publisher known for covering off-piste destinations.
“There’s no doubt that crowdfunding raised Socotra’s awareness; that’s why we got so many donations,” Bradt said. “The book continues to sell quite well, despite the impossibility of going so far. It’s the book we’d like to have when we’re there. “
However, the political struggle both nationally and internationally has left Socotra with an uncertain future.
“The benefit of tourism would initially be to bring Socotra more into the public eye,” Booth said. “Then, and we have often seen it in other countries, once tourism begins to show that the natural assets of a place can be a source of foreign funds, much more effort is made to protect them. Socotri themselves are very aware of the value of their heritage and are very capable of participating in an ecotourism that does not harm, 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 working for decades, mostly 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 center of their long-term strategic vision,” said Siamak Seyfi, an assistant professor of tourism geography at the University of Oulu in Finland. “All countries in the region have been aware of the great importance of tourism as an engine of economic diversification.”
Tourism is also an important marketing and national branding tool, offering the opportunity to show positive images internationally while analyzing internal and regional conflicts.
“These stories are often promoted and serve a broader purpose,” said Waleed Hazbun, a professor of international relations at the University of Alabama and author of Beaches, Ruins, Resorts: Tourism Policy in the Arab World.
“A lot of the stories are there to sell an idea instead of reflecting ‘there will be so many visitors.’ When you think about these trends, you see how much politics there is in the background.”