Why not GCC expats travel to Türkiye visa-free?

Opinion Saturday 08/June/2024 19:46 PM
By: Bilal Bilici *
Why not GCC expats travel to Türkiye visa-free?

International tourism reached 97 percent of pre-pandemic levels in the first quarter of 2024. The Middle East saw the strongest relative growth, with international arrivals exceeding pre-pandemic levels by 36 percent in the first quarter of 2024. Europe exceeded pre-pandemic levels for the first time in a quarter, with a one percent increase from first quarter of 2019.

In 2022, approximately 51.4 million tourists visited Türkiye from across the globe. In 2023, the number of visitors increased by 10 percent, reaching 56.7 million. In 2024, 60 million tourists are expected to visit Türkiye.  
To achieve the goal of 60 million tourists, intense and concrete visa liberalisation practices are required. For instance, Southeast Asian countries are racing to attract Chinese tourists with visa-free policies. Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore have offered visa waivers for tourists from China since late last year.

Turkish policymakers need to acknowledge that both Chinese and Indian visitors are emerging sources of tourists. This requires courageous steps, similar to those taken by countries like the UAE and other Southeast Asian countries that have waived visas.

In diplomacy, things are handled reciprocally with the mutual national interest of each independent state.

However, during times of high expectations for tourism goals and numbers, and considering the economic difficulties of Türkiye, this kind of move can also help the Turkish economy to recover.

Ultimately, China and India are the largest tourism markets globally. There has been a notable rise in Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Exhibitions (MICE) travel from China, especially to the UAE, driving growth across several of our brands.  Additionally, Chinese travelers are increasingly undertaking long-haul trips and showing greater interest in luxury hospitality. Similar trends are observed among Indian travelers as well.

Traditionally, Türkiye has also been a popular destination for the travelers from the Gulf region. Among the GCC countries, Saudi Arabia ranks first, with 820,683 tourists visiting Türkiye in 2023, followed by Kuwait (363,070), the UAE (120,819), Oman (96,895), Qatar (70,090), and lastly Bahrain (64,771).

This marks a significant rise in tourist numbers for all GCC countries compared to the modest figures a decade ago. In 2013, 234,220 Saudi tourists visited Türkiye, followed by Kuwait (88,238), the UAE (52,424), Qatar (18,630), Bahrain (16,230), and Oman (8,956).

Although there are more visitors from these countries to Türkiye, the above figures only reflect statistics based on nationality, excluding expatriates and foreigners living in the GCC, as well as transit passengers.

In GCC countries, there are many skilled professionals from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines and many other countries from the Middle-East, Africa and South Asia. There are roughly 27.3 million expats living in GCC countries, primarily from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Egypt.

Across the entire GCC, almost half of the population consists of expats. In certain countries such as the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain, the overwhelming majority of the population are expats. This diversity not only strengthens the labour force and fosters cultural exchange but also creates harmony, co-existence, and tolerance. Many GCC countries value these principles and benefits.

Turkish decision makers may examine this model and adopt a more comprehensive visa regime towards the GCC region, and try to find a solution for catering towards the Chinese and Indian tourists. Both visitors would diversify the visitor portfolio and add new dynamics to the Turkish tourism industry.

Türkiye should have a more liberal visa regime. Time consuming visa application procedures and bureaucratic burden as well as unavoidable visa fees make potential visitors destined to Türkiye shy away.  

Yet, the approach must be based on certain criteria. If someone is an expat, that means they have already met specific requirements in a GCC country and are unlikely to immigrate to Türkiye.

In December 2023, Türkiye lifted the tourism visa requirement for nationals of the United States, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Oman. Tourists from these six countries will no longer need visas.

On the other hand, Turkish people have faced double standards from European countries. Many of my friends, colleagues, relatives, and constituents experience serious difficulties obtaining visas from Schengen countries.

The Turkish government should not adopt the same approach as the Schengen countries, as it is counterproductive and would leave a disappointing impression and unhospitable image on potential visitors.

Türkiye’s advanced infrastructure makes it an accessible destination for travelers from the Gulf region. With Turkish Airlines, Oman Air, and Salam Air shuttling between Oman and Türkiye, your journey to this enchanting land is both convenient and comfortable. While Oman Air directly flies to Istanbul and Trabzon, Salam Air flies to Istanbul, Trabzon, and Rize.  

Other major regional airliners such as Emirates, Kuwait Airways, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Qatar Airways, Etihad, and budget airliners Air Arabia, Fly Dubai, and Jazeera Airways also frequently fly to Turkish cities.

As GCC travelers seek new horizons and enriching experiences, Türkiye stands out as an exceptional destination. Its unique blend of history, culture, natural beauty, and warm hospitality offers a multifaceted journey that promises to captivate and inspire.

As a public servant with a private sector background, I am a true believer in cultural exchange, person-to-person interaction, and establishing solid experiences free from bias and prejudice. Therefore, I highly welcome and value all kinds of interaction between the peoples and businesses from GCC countries including expats and Türkiye.

Lastly, Eid al-Adha is just around the corner in the second half of June, Muslims prepare to celebrate this festivity, with most families focusing on sharing, creating memories, and enjoying this joyful holiday. A popular destination for many around the world, particularly not only for Muslims around world but to avid travelers is Türkiye.   

Türkiye has immense tourism potential, with the number of international visitors constantly rising, making the country one of the top five most popular tourist destinations. This is due to Türkiye offering a wide range of touristic activities along with its historical heritage spread across multiple regions and throughout the entire year, rather than being limited to one season or a particular geography. In order to reach this goal, concrete steps shall be taken sooner rather than later.

* The author is a member of the Turkish Parliament