Visitor beware

With some of the recent proposals, you’d think some Gulf officials were trying to put tourists off visiting, says Shane McGinley
Shane McGinley
By Shane McGinley
Tue 26 Aug 2014 11:30 AM

Let’s face it, Saudi is not the most liberal or open country in the world.

I’ve interviewed Saudi tourism officials before and they are quite happy to focus on the domestic market and the revenue from the lucrative annual pilgrimages to its holy sites. If you don’t come to visit they really don’t seem that bothered.

Other states are different of course as Dubai has opened almost every attraction known to man to achieve its goal of 20 million tourists per year and Qatar is planning to host the congress of global hooligans – otherwise known as the FIFA World Cup – in 2022.

It is encouraging then on the one hand that tourists will be allowed to visit the top of the Makkah Clock Tower for the first time after the Haj season, Saudi officials have announced this month.

One of the tallest buildings in the world, at 601 metres, the tower overlooks the Grand Mosque, Islam’s holiest site.

“A large number of visitors of different nationalities will be allowed to visit the tower to get a close look at the interior of the Clock Tower,” an official told Arab News.

"There will be tickets to visit the tower. This procedure will be announced after this year's Haj season.”

As the kingdom gradually opened up to non-religious tourists this year, allowing pilgrims who travelled to Makkah to extend their visa by 30 days for domestic tourism purposes, it is really discouraging to read the policies coming out of Bahrain and Kuwait.

Kuwait’s Ministry of Health is considering seeking compulsory medical examinations for all foreigners who arrive in the country on a visit visa.

The idea follows revelations that 2,000 labourers with AIDS or phthisis were working in the country, having entered as a tourist and transferring to a working visa, avoiding medical exams.

The health ministry also was concerned by the recent outbreaks of the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), which started in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, and Ebola.

Meanwhile, a Nigerian athlete had been reportedly quarantined in Kuwait on suspicion of having Ebola, a fatal disease that has killed more than 1,000 people in West Africa in recent months. You’d almost think Kuwait didn’t want tourists to come visit with such a policy.

Then in Bahrain, a country that has a Formula 1 race every year but it hardly on the top of people’s tourism wish list after all the Arab Spring violence in recent years, it has announced there will be an increase in visa fees for visitors from October. Great move I’ll bet the hotels and tourist board are surely not thinking.

Currently, a two-week visitor/tourist fee costs $19 (BD7), while two-year work visas costs $530 (BD200), plus a $26 (BD10) monthly fee. It is not known yet what the increases will be.

Whoever though they’d see the day when Saudi would come out appearing more liberal, but going on recent events lately in the tourism sector that would appear to be the case.

All we need now is for Oman to introduce a minimum spend on tourists visiting and Qatar to think about maybe introducing an IQ test for all visitors and the UAE will surely lap up all the remaining tourists thinking of coming anywhere near the region.

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