Oman has registered record numbers of tourists every year since 2015, and has introduced a set of new visa laws to continue on the same trajectory toward fulfilling its Vision 2040.
In 2017, 3.3 million tourists visited Oman, marking a strong 4.7% YoY growth. The country is dedicated to increasing non-oil exports as part of its Vision 2040, and the National Program for Enhancing Economic Diversification, Tanfeedh, has focused on pushing the tourism sector as a major engine for job creation and economic development. One of the keys to achieving that is adopting a tourist-friendly visa system, and to that end, Oman has been shuffling visa laws in recent times to find the sweet spot.
A year after the Sultanate quadrupled the cost of its tourist visa fee from OMR5 to OMR20 (the length of stay was also increased from 10 days to one month), it reintroduced its cheaper tourist visa along with two new tourist visas and a host of new changes to its system. Tourist visas will now be divided into three categories: 10 days, one month, and one year. Moreover, the recent amendments allow foreigners who own certain properties to receive a visa without a sponsor as well as enable expats working in government sectors to sponsor visa applicants.
Another major highlight of the new visa policy is that foreigners residing in GCC countries with specific professions can now visit Oman for tourism purposes without a sponsor. This particular change is set to boost tourist numbers, because according to the National Centre for Statistics and Information (NCSI), tourists from the Gulf countries continue to form the majority of tourist arrivals. In 2017, 48% of all tourist arrivals were from the GCC, followed by India, the UK, and Pakistan, which represented 16.5%, 5.4%, and 4%, respectively.
Perhaps the biggest change in the new law is the requirement for all applications for tourist visas, from March 21 onwards, to be made online in advance. According to the Royal Oman Police (ROP), the new visa system will boost the number of tourists by facilitating and easing the visa and immigration process and reducing the waiting time at arrivals. The new policy has led to criticism from local businesses, especially tour operators, who largely rely on tourists coming for short trips; around 27% of all visitors to Oman come and leave on the same day.
Oman launched its e-visa service in July 2017 to accompany its visa-on-arrival service, which has been scrapped under the new system. The e-visa service enabled travelers to sign up in four steps, attach documents, select the visa of choice, pay, and receive the visa via email. In doing so, Oman followed the footsteps of other GCC countries. However, there is one major difference: the majority of GCC countries have a simpler system in place. For example, the UAE allows passport holders from 34 countries to simply scan their passports at immigration control for a multiple-entry 90-day visa, and citizens of 19 more countries to acquire a free 30-day visa on arrival.
Keeping in mind that the new visa system will initially result in some difficulties, as some visitors will not be aware of the new laws, the ROP said there will be an area in the arrivals terminal where visitors can apply online for a visa before proceeding to the immigrations desks to formally enter the country. But there are multiple reports of individuals who applied for e-visas still being made to wait at the border, with some having to pay twice because of issues with the new visa system. By the end of 2018, Oman is seeking to tap investors to finance a USD5-billion mixed-use tourism project in Salalah, one of 14 tourism destinations aimed at pushing visitor numbers to 11.7 million and creating 500,000 tourism-related jobs for Omanis by 2040. As evident, the Sultanate continues to tick various boxes to realize its Vision 2040, but further refining and easing its visa policy must be prioritized in order to attract potential tourists who would otherwise be inclined to visit other neighboring GCC countries.