DUBAI, UAE - The UAE, one of the largest tourism markets in the Middle East and North Africa, is set to become a full member of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) this year, a top official said.
Despite its success in tourism the UAE is the only country in the region that is not a UNWTO member.
"The government has been talking to us about becoming a full member following the establishment of the National Council for Tourism and Antiquities," Taleb Rifai, UNWTO secretary-general, said.
The UNWTO has 155 members. Although all UN members are entitled to membership, some such as the UAE, the United States, New Zealand and some Scandinavian countries have yet to join.
To join, each country must nominate a government body, authority or ministry to represent it.
Before 2009, the UAE did not have a federal tourism regulatory body to represent it at international tourism events.
Most of the UAE's participation in major travel exhibitions was through individual emirates and their tourism bodies.
In 2009 the UAE government set up the National Council for Tourism and Antiquities (NCTA) as the federal tourism coordinating body. It is responsible for representing the country at global tourism events and coordinating rules and regulations among tourism departments in each emirate to create a proper regulatory environment for the industry.
However, despite great success in tourism, the UAE still does not have a tourism ministry to oversee the development of the sector. The country has yet to develop a centralised database for tourist arrivals and currently only a small amount of information is available.
The UAE Cabinet has recently designated the NCTA as the national representative for tourism affairs and following the necessary paperwork, it could become a full member of the UNWTO.
"We welcome the UAE Cabinet's decision designating the NCTA to be the official national representative for tourism affairs of the UAE, which will help us to induct the country as a full member of the UNWTO, following necessary paperwork," Rifai told Gulf News.
"We have almost concluded an agreement, and I have received news that the cabinet has held discussions, and it is - in principal - approved. We are awaiting official notification and would be delighted to welcome the UAE as a member."
Rifai said the US had yet to become a UNWTO member for similar reasons. The US does not have a federal tourism regulatory body or national representative.
"They are now nominating the Department of Commerce to represent the country for tourism as well, which will pave the way for the US to become a full UNWTO member," he said.
Single GCC visa
Looking at the Gulf region, he said, a lot more could be done to boost the tourism industry. Although GCC citizens can travel within the region visa-free, with residents getting visas upon arrival, a single visa scheme would allow increased visitor traffic to the region.
"In the long term, the Gulf countries will eventually develop a single visa scheme for international visitors â that's the worldwide trend," Rifai said.
"This will obviously help greater mobility across the region and increase tourist traffic flow."
Aviation and tourism have been at the centre of the economic transformation in the Gulf for the past 25 years. A study by Oxford Economics shows aviation in the Middle East supports 2.7 million jobs and $129 billion (Dh473.8 billion) in GDP.
Aviation's role is set to grow rapidly as international passenger numbers jump from 77.1 million in 2010 to 220 million by 2030.
"Aviation's ability to play a leading role in GDP growth is not guaranteed. It depends on having the right conditions in place to support competitive sustainable businesses," said Tony Tyler, director-general and CEO of the International Air Transport Association.