On August 9, 2017 Qatar announced a programme that grants visa-free entry to citizens of 80 countries, allowing nationals of 33 of those nations to stay for 180 days and those from the remaining 47 countries to stay for up to 30 days. The list includes India, Turkey, most of Europe, China, the US, Canada, South Africa and Indonesia. In early September 2017 Morocco was added to the list, joining Lebanon as the only other Arab country included. The chief executive of state-owned Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker, said that visitors would now be able to enter Qatar “with no paperwork, no payment and no visas”.
This granting of visa-free access came shortly after a move by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the UAE to impose a boycott on Qatar. This started on June 5, 2017 and effectively cut many of the transport links with the country. Qatar Airways, for example, was blocked from using the airspace of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE, while the country’s only land border, which it shares with Saudi Arabia, was inevitably affected. Ratings agency Fitch, which lowered Qatar’s rating to “AA–” with a negative outlook in August 2017, estimated that the sanctions imposed by the four countries would hurt Qatar’s tourism and transport sectors in particular, with Qatar Airways having lost about 10% of its passenger flow in the first few months.
This latest move by Qatar to grant visa-free entry to visitors from a large number of nations is seen as an important step in mitigating the fallout from decreasing visitor numbers as a result of the travel restrictions, and could be a pivotal development in helping the country broaden the range of nationalities that visit Qatar. It is also part of longer-term efforts to attract a more eclectic group of tourists, both in terms of their nations of origin as well as their reasons for visiting the nation, something that is being aided by a number of major initiatives, like the hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. “During the past years, Qatar has invested time and efforts to build its internal capabilities and develop a large network of national and international partners,” Khalifa bin Jassim Al Kuwari, director-general of Qatar Fund for Development, told OBG.
Efforts to further diversify the nationalities of people visiting Qatar is something the country has been working on for some time, with various strategic government policies, product development and promotional drives having been launched in recent years. Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA) has opened nine international representative offices to better promote the country, with offices in Turkey, Singapore, the UK, the US, Germany, France, Italy and the GCC, and has also launched more than 200 global media and trade campaigns in key markets to help put Qatar on the global tourism map. QTA has also introduced new tourism festivals to try to create a year-round calendar of tourist-friendly events.
Although it is still too early to determine the longer-term impact of the visa-free programme on overall tourist numbers, the initial figures have been promising, with a rise in visitors from Europe and North America recorded in the first half of 2017. However, the total number of visitors over the same period had fallen, according to QTA’s most recent report, the drop in arrivals from the GCC region and other Arab countries in May and June was partly a result of the yearly slowdown during Ramadan, in addition to regional issues. “Undoubtedly, the diplomatic dispute with three neighbouring countries has had a negative impact on visitor arrivals during the summer months, rendering them slower than usual,” Hassan Al Ibrahim, the agency’s acting chairman, said in the report.
While Qatar is open to visitors from most countries, those from nations within the GCC region have traditionally accounted for roughly half of the total: in 2016 some 2.94m people visited Qatar, of whom 1.41m came from the GCC. Meanwhile, 455,076 visitors came from Europe, 660,364 came from Asia and Oceania, and just 157,715 came from North and South America. In comparison, 949,145 people came from Saudi Arabia alone in 2016, a figure that is likely to fall significantly in 2017.
Indeed, Qatar recorded an 18% drop in visitor numbers from its neighbouring countries in the first seven months of 2017, falling from 804,875 year-on-year (y-o-y) to 656,681, according to data released by the Ministry of Development, Planning and Statistics. Other reports suggest that this drop is even more pronounced when examining the period after the mid-2017 travel restrictions were put in place, with the overall number of visitors from the GCC falling by more than 70% in the months just after the restrictions were imposed, and a 40% y-o-y drop in total arrivals in June 2017.
However, there was promising growth in certain markets. The first half of 2017, for example, saw a 19% rise in European arrivals year-on-year, and 13% growth in arrivals from the Americas, as well as a 7% increase in visitors from Asia, including Oceania. The fact that citizens of 80 countries are now eligible for visa-free entry, and are able to obtain a visa waiver upon arriving in Qatar with only valid travel documents necessary for entry, is likely to further boost tourist arrival numbers moving into 2018, while also strengthening the perception of Qatar as an open and easy country to visit. These figures are likely to continue rising as increasing numbers of travellers take advantage of the new visa-free policy in the coming months and years.
Qatar has set a target of attracting 5.6m tourists a year by 2023, with key events like the 2022 FIFA World Cup regarded as important means of introducing the country to the world stage and bringing in new visitors. At the same time it is increasingly necessary for Qatar to look for ways to engage with and make it easier for those wanting to visit. Offering visa-free arrival for citizens of additional countries is seen as an momentous step in this process by industry insiders, as liberal entry requirements in neighbouring countries like the UAE have helped them to become short-hop or transit destination hubs, something Qatar could emulate with the right facilities and branding.
“The visa exemption scheme will make Qatar the most open country in the region,” Al Ibrahim told reporters when the programme was first announced. Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, the prime minister, speaking during World Tourism Day celebrations in late September 2017, echoed this sentiment. “We have taken a number of procedures that are unprecedented in order to reinforce the performance of the tourism sector, making the state of Qatar one of the most open countries in the region,” he said, adding that such procedures will undoubtedly improve inflows and help to develop the tourism industry.
The visa-free programme is just the latest in a series of measures aimed at opening up Qatar to more diverse groups of visitors. The country has experimented with loosening visa requirements in the recent past. In November 2016 it introduced free transit visas, which allowed passengers travelling through Qatar to stay for up to 96 hours without a visa fee, in the hope of enticing people to take a few extra days to explore the country. Other efforts included QTA and Qatar Airways launching +Qatar in May 2017, which is an offer where flights also included a complimentary transit visa and a free night’s stay in a four- or five-star hotel. In addition, the country launched an online tourist visa application service for all nationalities in order to speed up and streamline the visa application process, allowing greater ease of access for visitors. The latest visa-free policy will therefore look to build on these past initiatives.
With the opening of Qatar’s new Hamad Port in September 2017, the older Doha Port – strategically located in the capital – is set to be transformed into an international cruise ship terminal. This will likely open up the country to considerable numbers of tourists who would benefit from the more liberal visa environment now in place, allowing cruise passengers to enjoy a hassle-free visit, especially since many cruise ships only dock for a day or two. In 2016 Qatar saw a 1000% increase in cruise passenger numbers, which, along with redevelopment at Doha Port, bodes well for the tourism sector, with cruises bringing positive flow-on effects for the city’s services sector as well.
The 2017/18 season is expected to see the best results for the cruise segment to date, with 21 liners expected to call at the port before the season closes, which happens in April each year. This number includes two mega-ships – which are defined as vessels that have a capacity of between 2500 and 6000 passengers – marking a first for the country.
Looking further ahead, Al Ibrahim has said that Qatar is expected to attract approximately 300,000 cruise visitors over the course of the 2019/20 season. Since cruise ships are able to directly access Qatar, these numbers are unlikely to be affected by the geopolitical tensions in the region.
In September 2017 the government launched the next chapter of the Qatar National Tourism Sector Strategy 2030, a development blueprint that outlines key targets for the 2017-23 period. In this timeframe authorities are seeking to attract 5.6m tourists, which is double the numbers seen in 2016; reach an occupancy rate of 72% in Qatar’s hotels; and raise the tourism sector’s direct contribution to GDP from QR19.8bn ($5.4bn) in 2016 to QR41.3bn ($11.3bn).
Changes to the sector’s governance were also delineated in the plan, with the duties and responsibilities of the QTA to be incorporated into a new entity, the National Tourism Council (NTC). The NTC’s main tasks will be attracting investment, overseeing strategic planning and regulating the sector. To achieve its goals, the council will be given oversight of three new entities charged with developing new large-scale tourism products and offerings, consolidating the work of existing business events stakeholders and promoting Qatar internationally as a prime tourism destination.
With the long-term impact of the boycott remaining unclear, and tension likely to remain high for some time, the introduction of visa-free travel to Qatar for multiple nationalities could be pivotal in opening up the country to a more diverse group of visitors, and may help to stimulate the tourist industry at a time of uncertainty for the sector.
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