x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Visa fee changes raise questions

Travel experts say casual tourists "will think twice" before coming to the UAE, while recruitment firms say it will deter some job seekers.

Major changes to visa requirements and fees have left embassies, airlines and travel organisations seeking urgent clarification from the authorities.

Officials had initially insisted that the visa changes - which include a standard Dh500 (US$136) entry fee even for tourists - would apply to all nationalities. But in a clarification of the policy yesterday, the National and Residence Department (NRD) said citizens of any country currently not required to obtain an entry visa would still be exempt under the new system. Under the existing rules, only citizens of the UK are allowed to enter without a visa. A group of 30 nations, including the USA, Canada and most of Europe, can in theory be asked for a Dh100 visa fee, although in practice this is almost never applied.

With the changes due to take effect in less than two months, several key questions about the working of the new rules remain to be answered. Yesterday, Major Gen Mohammed al Khaili, the director general of the NRD, explained that "nationalities that currently are not required to apply for a visa, will not have to under the new system". However, citizens of other countries, including those from the Indian subcontinent and many Arab nations, are still understood to be subject to the changes. It would mean that a family of four from countries not covered by the exemption clause could have to pay up to Dh6,000, including a Dh4,000 refundable deposit, in visa fees.

Those wishing to stay in the homes of family or friends appear to face a further complication. For travel from Aug 1, visas can only be issued by hotels or travel agents and not for visitors on flights booked directly with airlines. It is not clear if flights will in future have to be booked through travel agencies to obtain a visa. "Friends of residents have to apply for a tourist visa and book through a hotel or travel or tourist agent even if they wanted to stay at a friend's place," said Major Gen Khaili.

"This is common in all countries. You have to book in a hotel in order to purchase a visa." Major Gen Khaili said his department would accept visa applications from hotel rooms booked online because "the hotels are well known". He did not specify if the same would apply to websites such as Expedia and Hotels.com, which purchase rooms in bulk from hotels and sell them on to customers at a discount. Visit visas booked through hotels and travel agencies will cost Dh100.

However, Major Gen Khaili was able to elaborate on how the charges would be applied, saying fees would be paid when applying for a visa rather than at the airport. Four new categories of visas will be added, including a 90-day visit visa that will cost Dh1,000. Other types include a study visa, a medical visa for those seeking treatment and one for those attending exhibitions and conferences. Travel agents wishing to issue visas must first pay a Dh75,000 fee to the Government.

The changes are intended to make it easier to track visitors and to cut down on job seekers who use visit visas to enter the country. The NRD says it is notifying hotels and tourism authorities about the changes, but refused to elaborate on the Dh75,000 visa issuing fee, saying "this is an interior matter. It is between us and them". A spokesman for Etihad Airlines said it was still unsure about the precise implications of the changes for the airline.

Etihad, he said, "is in discussions with the Abu Dhabi Airports Company and other government agencies to understand the full details of the proposed visa changes and assess the possible implications for our business and customers". Housan Raydan, a spokesman for Air Arabia, which flies out of Sharjah airport, said: "As it is a government announcement, airports will all have to abide by it. "The concerns are more particularly from the travel agents' side and we are focusing more on the price of tickets rather than visas.

"The whole country, with the growing inflation rate, is becoming more and more expensive from day to day. The increase in the price of the visa falls under that umbrella. "The demand to travel to this region is very high and increasing at a noticeable rate. This will definitely have an impact - the question is how serious that impact will be." The impact of the new fees on Dubai airport is likely to be considerable. In a typical 24-hour period, there are about 400 arriving flights, of which 300 come from countries where visa fees apply.

In addition to the visa requirements, visitors from all countries will have to show proof of proper health insurance. The Government has not said how it would check if health policies were valid or what it would do with arrivals who cannot prove they are covered. Major Gen Khaili said he "did not expect anyone to be affected by the new system" and predicted visitor numbers would rise as a result of the changes because "competition will increase between hotels and tourism authorities to provide better services and lower prices".

A spokesman for the German embassy said it had not been told about the changes and was "waiting for notification", while the US embassy said it was "studying the new rules and how they would apply to our nationals". Travel experts expressed concern about the impact of higher visa charges on tourism. Cheryl Mandy, the editor of Travel & Tourism Middle East, said: "The casual tourist will think twice about stopping over in the UAE.

"It is already a long, drawn-out process for residents here to get visas on behalf of their visitors and the additional cost - double - will be the straw that breaks the camel's back. They just won't visit anymore. "Hotels are already short-staffed, so I would imagine this would create additional headaches with even more paperwork to contend with." Although the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA) said it would not be able to comment on the proposals until later today, its director general, Mubarak al Muhairi, said in April that the authority would be working with government officials to ease visa restrictions.

He said the ADTA wanted to make it easier for tourists from India, China and the Philippines - all countries facing the new fees. Recruitment firms predicted that the measures would affect all potential job seekers, although to different degrees. William Buck, the international director of Macdonald and Company, a recruitment consultancy in the real estate industry, said: "If a professional has made a committed decision to find a career opportunity in the UAE, to pay Dh500 to get a visit visa for 30 days is something they would be willing to do.

"What it might do is make people who are thinking about it on a whim take more into consideration before getting on a plane." At Abu Dhabi airport, new arrivals yesterday expressed concern about the changes. Hala Abdul Rahman, an Emirati who works at the Sheikh Khalifa Medical Centre, said he was "wondering how this is going to affect the status of people in the UAE". "Life is already very difficult for some of them, especially low-income workers and for them to not be able to afford to have their families visit will be hard on them. This just adds to their misery."

Tina Mathews, an Indian woman living in Abu Dhabi, said: "I would like to have my parents over, but now it is going to be very lonely for me because I cannot afford to." * The National