A range of new visa measures recently announced by the Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA) have been widely welcomed by tourism industry professionals, as well as the country’s hospitality and retail operators.
Boosting the sector and facilitating ease of entry is an increasingly important priority as Qatar aims to increase the number of tourists from 2.93m in 2015 to 7m-10m annually by 2030, while also gearing up for the mass of visitors expected to attend the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
The recent visa changes dovetail with the $40bn-45bn of expected investment in tourism infrastructure through to 2030, with the QTA’s National Tourism Sector Strategy calling for investment in the development of the country’s tourism products, services, hotels and resorts.
In October QTA released its third quarter tourism sector performance summary, which showed that while visitor numbers rose to 780,000 in the third quarter of the year, up 35% from 577,374 in the second quarter, the total through to September was still down on the same period last year.
The first nine months of 2015 saw 2.25m arrivals, while the same period this year recorded a total of 2.18m visitors, a decline of 3%.
QTA officials contrasted this with the 8% year-on-year growth seen between the same periods of 2014 and 2015, while also highlighting that most of the contraction in 2016 occurred in the first half of the year, when numbers fell some 6%.
Factors such as an earlier start to Ramadan, which affected June arrivals, and economic headwinds in the region, stemming from low energy prices, were seen as contributing to the decline.
However, tourism numbers could see a recovery in the months and years ahead thanks to a series of new visa measures that are set to not only increase Qatar’s attractiveness to visitors, but also enable the country to take fuller advantage of Doha’s growing status as a transit hub.
At an August press conference, the Ministry of Interior (MoI), QTA and Qatar Airways (QA) announced the launch of a fast-tracked visa application system. The new system – which will be implemented in collaboration with VFS Global, a global provider of visa-processing services – is expected to be ready by the first or second quarter of 2017.
A second move introduced by QTA and QA in September will allow all QA travellers transiting in Doha, regardless of nationality, to obtain a free, four-day transit visa to encourage them to stop over in Qatar. The new transit visa scheme went into effect at the beginning of November.
Travellers are able to apply directly for the transit visa through a QA office or online, and once approved, the single-entry visa is valid for a 90-day period, according to press reports.
As a further incentive, QA has restructured fares so passengers can stop over in Doha without incurring any additional ticket charges.
Meanwhile, a third measure, also announced in September, allows cruise passengers to use the new transit visa as well.
As part of the new operating procedure – which includes the use of enhanced technology and close collaboration between cruise operators and security officials – a passenger manifest containing the passport details of passengers and crew will be shared with immigration officials 48 hours prior to a ship’s arrival in Qatar.
This will allow the authorities to process all relevant information and clear passengers for entry before ships berth, enabling travellers to disembark within minutes and begin on-shore excursions.
This should give an important boost to the cruise tourism segment, which is expected to bring an estimated 50,000 visitors to Doha’s shores during the 2016/17 tourism season.
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