Schengen visa
The Schengen visa has delivered all that it was meant to do for Europe's economies, including non-EU nations. The GCC will have much to gain from a unified tourism visa. Image Credit: Shutterstock

The EU member-countries have had considerable success in developing their tourism and hospitality sectors through the unified Schengen, which was launched in the second-half of the 1990s. This came about after an agreement reached in the mid-1980s and marked a qualitative leap, by encouraging non-EU countries - Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein - to sign up for the Schengen deal.

These countries have in the years since recognized the fulsome benefits of joining the Schengen area. We previously discussed the opportunity for the GCC to learn from the EU example by adopting a ‘Gulf Schengen’ visa to further develop the tourism sector. It appears that there is a strong prospect of an agreement being reached on such a visa, driven by several factors.

These include the rapid development of the Gulf’s tourism infrastructure, as well as the emergence of some Gulf cities as distinctive global destinations that attract talent and celebrities from the world of art, culture, and sports. Many of these individuals would likely appreciate the opportunity to visit multiple Gulf countries with ease.

Simultaneously, some GCC countries recently introduced additional facilities for visitors, by allowing those with a residence permit in one of the GCC countries to travel freely among member-states. This has led to the revitalization of Gulf tourism.

Qatar's 'Haya' win

The Qatar World Cup showcased the feasibility of granting a joint visa through the successful implementation of the ‘Haya’ card. Issued by Qatar for the World Cup, this allowed its holder to enter GCC countries and then proceed to Qatar to attend the championsh. This brief experience demonstrated the significance - and prospects – from agreeing to issue a Gulf Schengen visa and ease some previous concerns related to the idea.

The number of tourists coming from outside the GCC doubled last year, reaching 10 million, excluding intra-GCC tourism. This growth, in turn, helped revitalize the tourism sector, and created more visibility for the geographical diversity and multitude of archaeological sites, museums, and family entertainment venues. The number of tourists from outside the GCC is expected to double again if a unified Gulf visa is adopted.

Just tourists

Although the Gulf Schengen will differ from the European version - which is not limited to tourist visas but is an integrated agreement allowing the complete opening of borders for the movement of people, goods, and services - the concept is similar. It follows the policy of open borders, considering all the countries in the agreement as a single commercial and tourist area. While the conditions may not yet be ripe for the Gulf to take such a step towards fully opening its borders, the agreement on a unified visa could be seen as a crucial first step towards becoming a borderless zone.

Holding back past GCC deals

It is essential to highlight some previous issues that impacted the progress of Gulf-wide cooperation, from which lessons can be learned. Technical details have sometimes hindered benefiting from signed deals. For instance, the unified customs tariff or the customs union agreement explicitly provides for the free movement of goods and services between GCC.

However, legislator-imposed obstacles have impede the process of free movement, such as requiring that the period of entry of a commodity into the concerned Gulf state not exceed two years to allow its free movement. Furthermore, the procedures for moving goods and services without customs duties can be lengthy and cumbersome, significantly limiting the benefits of Gulf-wide agreements after they are shackled with conditions that hinder implementation.

It is crucial to ensure that the Gulf Schengen Agreement is not burdened with obstructive nitty-gritty, as doing so will greatly benefit the promising Gulf tourism sector. This sector is gaining a even higher profile due to the large investments directed towards it, helped by the existing infrastructure and diverse options available in the GCC.

If the Gulf Schengen Agreement proceeds without complications, the tourism sector in the six states will experience a qualitative leap, creating thousands of jobs in this labor-intensive sector. This development will increase the contribution of the tourism to the GCC’s GDP, further strengthening their economies.