ABU DHABI // The time taken to obtain a visa to visit the United States has been slashed.
Rather than wait up to six weeks, Emirati applicants can now complete the process in a week at quiet times and three weeks during the peak summer season.
And most applicants will have to go through the process only once every 10 years.
"Once an entry visa is stamped, most Emirati applicants can travel any time to the US until its validity expires - they are not restricted to travel within a certain period," said Christine Harold Aluyen, consul general at the US embassy in Abu Dhabi
Completing the forms at the embassy now takes only 75 minutes, after which an interview appointment can be arranged in as little as three days.
The processing time from an appointment booking to passport delivery can take up to three weeks at the moment because it is peak season, but Ms Harold Aluyen is trying to get the average time down to a week, regardless of the time of year.
"For Emiratis, we were really able to do great things like expedited medical transfer visas, which are issued for the patient and three escorts and take between three and five days," she said.
Improvements to the consular system were introduced in January as part of a US State Department plan to ensure uniformity for travellers from across the world and to reduce fees.
The UAE is the first country in the region to implement the system. The rest of the GCC is expected to follow in four or five months.
It comes as the US starts a drive to lure more tourists from the Middle East. "The Middle East holds a lot of opportunity for us, and the GCC is a prime target," said Jay Gray, vice president of Brand USA, an organisation that works to boost international tourist numbers in the US.
The State Department has acknowledged that the drawn-out process for GCC citizens to obtain a US visa needs to be improved, he said.
"They've reduced waiting times, made it easier to get the visas and made it clearer on how to do this. They understand the economic impact of these policy decisions."
Mr Gray expects travel to the US from the GCC to grow by 55 per cent by 2017, helped by new routes from Etihad Airwaysand Emirates into less tourism-focused areas such as Washington and Texas.
However, Dr Karen Young, assistant professor of political science at the American University of Sharjah, said Brand USA had a "tough road" ahead.
"Travelling to the US can be very unpleasant as a foreign tourist from the Middle East - and even as a US citizen - given the scrutiny of the Transportation Security Administration and Homeland Security protocols in US airports," she said.
Nevertheless, the number of US visas issued to UAE citizens rose from 11,716 in 2003 to 54,349 last year, and 92 per cent of Emirati applicants this year have submitted their applications online.
Applicants can do so at www.usvisa-info.com.