x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

UAE and Oman look to ease border woe for tourists

UAE and Omani officials are discussing ways to make it easier for non-GCC residents to cross the border.

Buildings in the old downtown Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman, which is a major tourist destination for UAE residents. Silvia Razgova / The National
Buildings in the old downtown Muscat, the capital of the Sultanate of Oman, which is a major tourist destination for UAE residents. Silvia Razgova / The National

DUBAI and Muscat // Mahmoud Al Mahmoud and his wife wanted to go to Oman last week to buy a gazebo for their garden.

He and his Canadian wife drove down from Ras Al Khaimah, only to be stopped at the first checkpoint on the Dubai-Hatta road.

"I was told that you could get good quality outdoor furniture for much cheaper prices just across the border," he said. "But they refused to let us through because my wife's Emirates ID had expired."

Due to his busy work schedule finding time to go back to Oman is not easy. "I think I'm just going to go to Sharjah and search for a good deal there," he said.

But now, new regulations under consideration may make it possible for Mr Al Mahmoud to get his gazebo after all.

An Omani government source working on the new regulations said yesterday: "We are smoothing out certain travel conditions and bureaucracy to make travel for those who are not GCC nationals to enjoy more travel liberty, and to share more tourists between the two countries."

There are four checkpoints between Oman and Dubai through the popular Hatta border, which experience heavy traffic on weekends and holidays.

Apart from the Oman and UAE border posts, the UAE has two checkpoints before and after Madha, a town enclave which lies between the two countries. The checkpoints at Madha were only introduced five years ago. "Part of the consideration is to reduce these checkpoints to make travel faster and ease congestions," he added.

Tourists who do not live in the UAE are only granted access if they have passports from EU countries, the US or Australia. Most Asian and African nationals cannot enter Oman by road.

It's equally difficult for non-residents in Oman, where expatriates need written permission from their sponsors to travel to the UAE.

The regulations have proved a major problem for Al Marasa, which has been operating dhow trips in Musandam for the past 12 years. The company owns four air-conditioned dhows which are very popular with divers for weekend trips.

"We've lost about 20 to 30 per cent of our business because of these border regulations," said Soheir Gabriel, marketing manager for the company.

"It has become a very lengthy process to book trips now. We need at least two days to process all the paperwork, just so you can cross the border. This means that we have lost all our walk-in customers. We just can't risk them being turned away at the checkpoint."

She said they had also faced problems getting their staff across the border.

"Our maintenance crew are based in Sharjah, so it's been difficult getting them across as well," she said. "We've had to get them six-month visas in Oman. We've also had to get visas for our drivers."

According to official statistics, Oman is a major tourist destination for UAE residents - travellers from here make up about 40 per cent of all tourists to Oman every year.

"There is so much more to this region than the swanky hotels and bars," said Matt Wilson, an outdoor enthusiast from Dubai. He used to enjoy hiking through the labyrinth of wadis the UAE and Oman mountain range has to offer, but border problems have forced him to stop going to his favourite trails.

"There is a lot of great hiking, camping, climbing and mountain biking in these mountains. With these changes, one of the most accessible and beautiful regions of the UAE has been completely been cut off to day trippers and campers, unless they have wasta [influence] with someone in the military or police. It's very sad."

MAlkhan@thenational.ae