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Stranded tourists hold placards with 'thank you' messages for His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: Tourists in the UAE have thanked His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, for free visa extension for a month. On Monday, Sheikh Mohammed issued instructions to extend all tourist visas for one month without having to pay any fees or penalty, in order to address the difficulties faced by visitors due to the closure of some airports across the world.

Holidaymakers are elated with the news as this now allows them to spend more time in the UAE, particularly those who are stranded in the UAE with some countries having closed their airports temporarily over the prevailing COVID-19 scenario. It has also delighted families with guests visiting them.

The news is a New Year gift for the family of Moustafa Elhansy Ibrahim, a UAE resident for more than two decades. He said his family was extremely happy that two of the sons and some other relatives, who are currently visiting them from Egypt, can now stay back for longer. “Now they have a chance to stay with the families for a longer time. Currently, there is more safety here. This is very helpful for everyone to stay and enjoy the weather in the UAE and also do some shopping here — especially in Dubai.”

Moustafa thanked Sheikh Mohammed for the great gesture. “He is a great leader who knows what the people need and he makes decisions accordingly. He has made life easier for so many tourists. This will also be a big blessing for those people who cannot fly back to countries that have closed their airports,” he pointed out.

Relief for the stranded

Nikhil P.M., who was to fly to Saudi Arabia, said the news was a pleasant surprise at a time when he was getting concerned about his tourist visa expiring on January 5. A mechanic in Saudi Arabia, Nikhil said he got stuck at home in India for almost a year and decided to fly back via the UAE since his ‘iqama’ (residence permit) would expire by the end of January 2021. “I was in a fix since the flights were suspended. I don’t have money to extend the tourist visa, which is expiring on January 5. That is when I heard this news. It is a great gesture from Sheikh Mohammed. This will really help people like me,” said Nikhil.

Kunhahamed P.P, who was supposed to fly to Kuwait, said, the tourist visa extension news gave him high hopes to return to his workplace in January. “We hope the flights will resume early in January. The UAE extending support to people affected by closure of airports in many countries is a great humanitarian gesture. We are all thankful to Sheikh Mohammed for this,” he said.

Dr Abdul Salam Saquafi, public relations manager at Dubai Markaz Centre, which has collaborated with construction firm Aasa Group to provide free accommodation and food to expat workers from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait amid the flight suspensions, said the free visa extension will benefit hundreds of expatriates who are on a 14-day mandatory quarantine here.

“We have already given free accommodation and provided food to around 250 people. They are all happy that the UAE leadership is kind and particularly Sheikh Mohammed as he has granted this facility without being asked.”

The Indian Cultural Foundation volunteers under Dubai Markaz Centre arranged placards for the stranded people to show their gratitude to the UAE and Sheikh Mohammad.

Another group of nearly 300 passengers to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have been provided accommodation in Ajman by Kerala Muslim Cultural Centre (KMCC), said advocate Ibrahim Khaleel, acting general secretary of KMCC Dubai. Welcoming the news of the visa extension, he said the gesture once again showed the generosity of the UAE leadership. “This is a huge relief for passengers who could not fly to the countries that had closed their airports. We are grateful to Sheikh Mohammed for this kind gesture towards stranded passengers,” he added.

Boon for tourism, hospitality sectors

Meanwhile, tour and travel agencies said the move is a boon for the tourism and hospitality industries as well. “Now that many people will spend more days in the UAE, it will benefit companies in the hospitality and tourism sectors also. They can expect more business even after the peak period of New Year holidays,” said Babu Parakkat, co-founder and director of Tripx Tours, an online travel company in Dubai.

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He said several visitors, who have arrived from different countries, are working remotely from here and enjoying leisure activities after work hours. “Tourists, mainly from Europe and the United Kingdom, are spending months here because of the harsh winter there and the lockdowns in view of COVID-19. They can now continue to work remotely and also enjoy the festivities of the season. Many such tourists will stay longer here with this free visa extension rule.”