ABU DHABI // Two months after the introduction of new visa rules many travel agents still do not know how they work and give misleading information to customers, according to an informal survey conducted by The National. Widespread confusion over the new rules introduced at the end of July for obtaining visit visas has caused thousands of expatriates to be stranded abroad on so-called visa runs that are no longer permitted.
Almost half of 25 travel companies contacted by The National yesterday provided false, misleading or out-of-date information about visas. Only four were able to provide entirely accurate information. Until July people whose visit visas expired were able to take short trips to neighbouring countries such as Iran, Oman and Qatar to renew their visas. But under the new rules, the practice is no longer permissible for all but 33 exempt nationalities. Visitors from other countries cannot now expect to have their visas automatically renewed. In most cases they must return to their home countries for at least a month before being issued another visa.
Ten out of the 25 travel companies contacted gave incorrect advice when asked about the rules for renewing visas for nationalities not on the exemption list, which include Egypt, India, Jordan, Pakistan and the Philippines. One Dubai travel agent knew the rules had changed, but gave incorrect information when asked how easy it would be for an Indian to renew a visit visa. "The new rules mean there are no visit visas with two months validity," said a sales assistant. "You can only take a tourist visa with one month's validity and renew it.
"The new rules mean you can exit to Buraimi in Oman or Kish, an island in Iran, to renew a visa. Either of those places. Exit and come back and validity will be from the date of re-entry for one month. If he is coming for four months, he can take four tourist visas," she said. In reality, the two-month visit visas have been discontinued and replaced by one-month tourist visas, but these cannot be renewed after a short trip out of the country.
An Indian visitor taking the agency's advice would be stranded in Oman, Iran or Qatar with thousands of others who have briefly left the country expecting to renew their visas, only to find they cannot re-enter the UAE. An Abu Dhabi travel agent incorrectly said a Jordanian would have no problem getting a tourist visa extension. "For a Jordanian citizen, or any other citizen that comes in on a visit visa for one month, it's easy. He can just go to Doha or go to Kish island, get a new visit visa, and come back in to the Emirates. No need to go back to the resident's country," said the agent.
"You'll need a return ticket when you come into the Emirates on a visit visa, but it is , you can get a refund for your return ticket when you are here and just drive over to Oman to renew your visa. Maybe you can get it done in one day, it's very easy," he added. One of the UAE's largest travel agencies also gave out incorrect information when The National called its Dubai office, posing as a Filipino seeking correct information on the regulations for visit visas. "You can go Kish to renew the visa and come straight back," said an agent.
As many as 6,200 Filipinos are believed to be stuck outside the country after attempting visa runs, caught unawares by the new law. One man, Alvin, from Manila, 46, has been in the UAE for 15 years. This month he attempted to do a visa run to Oman on the advice of his travel agency since he was in the process of changing jobs. He is one of hundreds of people - mainly from the Philippines - waiting in hotels in Buraimi on the Oman side of the border near Al Ain. Dozens of people are crowding into the lobbies of the hotels, where up to five people are staying in each room waiting for their paperwork to arrive, hopeful their documents will be among the new batch of visas arriving each day.
Alvin, who declined to give his surname, has been stuck in Buraimi for three weeks, waiting for his travel agency to arrange his new visa - a process for which he paid Dh1,000 (US$270). "There's lots of people stranded and everyone is piling up and few visas are being released," he said. "This hotel is fully booked. There are six people in my room, some of them sleeping on the floor." Officials have blamed tourism companies for giving out false information, but the Federal Naturalisation and Residency Department says on its website the rules are subject to change and should be checked with travel agencies or embassies.
Brig Gen Nasser al Minhali, acting director general of the Federal Naturalisation and Residency Department, said this week the law was clear and companies not giving out correct information should be blacklisted. He said the department would stop issuing visas to their clients or order their closure for repeated violations. Libran Cabactulan, the Philippines' ambassador, said he met with several travel agencies in Dubai last week to discuss the problem.
Only four of the 25 companies The National called correctly said the laws had changed, and visitors from countries not on the exemption list must return to their country of origin to renew their visas. Eleven companies admitted they did not know the rules, or could not give advice and recommended calling embassies or consulates. An Al Ain agent also said it would be easy for a Jordanian to renew his visa, and also advised visa runs to Qatar and Iran.
"There were new laws issued last month that have a few changes, but you can definitely get at least a two-month visit visa for a Jordanian by just paying an extra fee," the agency said. "In fact, I think that when you request a visit visa, you can ask for a two-month visa from the very start, for Dh1,000, then when you're here in the Emirates, you can just extend your visa for one more month after that.
"You can also go on a day trip to Doha to get a new visit visa too, if nothing else works. Or even Iran. It's easier, because you don't need a visa to go to Iran so it might be easier than Doha." * The National, with additional reporting by Zoi Constantine