When the quartet of Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE launched an economic and diplomatic boycott of Qatar last summer, they hoped to swiftly force Doha to change its behavior in a whole host of areas, from closing down the Al Jazeera television network to cutting ties with Iran and Turkey.
It hasn't quite worked out as they hoped. Instead of bending to the will of its four neighbours Qatar has fought back, building new trade links with other countries and fighting a canny diplomatic battle against its adversaries.
One unexpected consequence of the dispute is that Qatar has become one of the most open countries in the world to visitors. Soon after the boycott was launched, Qatar began to reform its visa rules, expanding the number of countries it offered visa-free entry to and extending the time period of transit visas for passengers wanting to take a look around between flights.
The changes were an effort to fill more seats on the expensively-assembled fleet of Qatar Airways and to ensure passengers kept using the country’s vast new airport, Hamad International. As a result, Qatar has now become the easiest country in the region to visit.
In its latest Visa Openness Report, published on September 3, the United Nations World Tourism Organization (WTO) said Qatar now ranks as the eighth most open in the world in terms of visa facilitation. As recently as 2014, it was down in 177th position in the world. This is despite the fact that the Middle East is the least open region globally when it comes to visa requirements for travelers.
Qatar now allows nationals of 88 countries to enter without a visa and without paying a fee, including the likes of China and Russia. In some respects, the reforms have paid off. According to the Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA), arrivals from India grew by 18% in the first half of 2018 compared to the same period last year, while visitor numbers from China increased by 43% and from Russia by 366%.
However, the broader picture shows an industry that is still struggling. The QTA says total visitor numbers to the country have plunged by a third over the last year, with 945,000 coming in the first half of this year compared to 1.46 million in the same period of 2017. Most of the fall is a result of neighbours steering clear of the country, with arrivals from the rest of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries collapsing by 84% to just over 100,000. Visitors from other Arab countries also fell by 45% to around 63,000.
Hotel occupancy rates also slipped slightly to 60% for the first half of 2018 and Qatar Airways says it has had to cope with substantial financial losses.
Qatar’s travel industry is not the only one taking a hit as a result of the boycott though. The latest financial report from Dubai’s Emirates airline noted that 4,658 fewer flights were handled at Dubai’s two airports in the 12 months to the end of March this year. The drop was “mainly due to the termination of flights between Dubai and Qatar,” it said.
Qatar’s visa reform process actually began before the economic boycott was launched against the country, with the government commissioning the WTO to prepare a study on its visa system in 2014. However, the dispute with its neighbours appears to be a key factor in pushing forward with changes above and beyond what the WTO had advised.
“Qatar has implemented and overachieved the recommendations of the study,” said WTO secretary-general Zurab Pololikashvili in a statement issued in conjunction with the latest Visa Openness Report.
The situation is slightly less good for Qatari passport holders wanting to travel, though. Qatar is only 49th in the world in the Passport Index, which ranks countries based on how easily their citizens can enter other countries. Qataris can enter 49 other countries without a visa and gain entry to 37 others via a visa-on-arrival, but they require a visa before travelling for 112 other territories. However, the situation is improving. The WTO says 20 of the countries that now benefit from Qatar’s visa waiver policy have reciprocated with similar measures for Qatari nationals.