Tourism experts from this region are looking at positioning the GCC as the next Schengen Area, with a push for a unified destination package that will attract overseas travellers to multiple stops across the Gulf.

Speaking at a panel at the Arabian Travel Market, Fatima Al Sairafi, Minister of Tourism, Bahrain, highlighted the benefits of the country’s unified destination strategy.

“When we announced our five-year strategy, leading up to 2026, our KPI for 2022 tourist numbers was set at 8.3 million. But 9.9 million tourists came. And the key initiative we did last year was to co-promote Bahrain with other GCC countries, starting with Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” she stated. “We noticed that co-promoting Bahrain as a unified destination resulted in increased footfall in the country, along with an increase in the diversity of nationalities coming.”

Fahd Hamidaddin, CEO, Saudi Tourism Authority, also hailed the success of a unified destination strategy, citing the kingdom’s use of the tagline ‘Welcome to Arabia’ for the positioning of its entire tourism branding.

“We look at tourism as a region and not a country,” Hamidaddin said. “World travellers look at the region as a whole, and that’s how we should think as well. [The] success of each complements the other, like a tide that lifts all ships.”

Abdulla Al Saleh, Undersecretary, Government of UAE, said this was a strategy that has also seen the emirates rise in the tourism rankings over the years.

“We have seven emirates in the UAE, and each has developed itself as a destination for tourists. They are competing with each other, but it is healthy competition that adds value to the UAE as a tourism destination,” he said.

Last year, while Qatar hosted the FIFA World Cup 2022 and enjoyed an influx of tourists, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain also saw an increase in footfall in their respective countries.

“We saw the Qatar World Cup as a great example as a pilot project, and it gave us all a jumpstart to work collectively,” Hamidaddin said.

Al Sairafi acknowledged that talks had begun about the possibility of a unified visa option for the GCC akin to the Schengen Area in the European Union, with FIFA as a catalyst.

“What we saw during the World Cup had a ripple effect,” she said. “The experience that Saudi Arabia had during the World Cup worked as a pilot of what could be. The discussion has been in place on how to achieve this, because we see the value it brings to the GCC in the future.”

(Writing by Bindu Rai; editing by Seban Scaria )