From Black to Red

Last week the Jordan Times reported that the tourism ministers of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey were proposing a common tourist visa valid across all four countries. From the Black Sea to the Red Sea, from Istanbul to Damascus, and from Ephesus to Baalbek to Palmyra to Petra, one visa would fit all. A great idea, and a most unusual Levantine example of cross-border cooperation for mutual benefit.

The reality, though, isn’t quite so rosy. The common visa would only be issued for tourists travelling in groups. Independent travellers – that substantial bloc of price-conscious, culturally aware, potentially high-spending visitors – are being given the cold shoulder yet again.

And then, when you think about it, do visa issues actually hinder group tourism in these four countries at the moment? Probably not. Although Jordan’s tourism minister Zeid Goussous is quoted as saying a common visa would encourage more tourists from faraway countries such as Latin America, I’d suggest a far greater disincentive for people in Asia or the Americas contemplating a long-haul holiday in the Middle East might be the perceived threat of violence or terrorism, the unfamiliarity of the destination(s), the high cost of international travel and ground arrangements, and/or the necessity of taking 10-14 days’ holiday at a minimum to justify the long flight. Red tape on the border is rarely an issue for group tourists, who get all their paperwork handled by their tour company.

(By contrast, bureaucracy for independent travellers at Middle Eastern border crossings can be miserable – but independent travellers will not qualify for these common visas. An opportunity missed.)

A key question, unanswered in the news report, is how much the visa would cost. That could make the difference between successful stimulation of a semi-dormant market – and negligible returns on yet more diplomatic hot air.

Separately, I’d also suggest that people coming to the Levant from, specifically, Latin America would very likely want to be visiting the Christian holy sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth rather than lazing in Beirut or ballooning in Cappadocia – but Palestine and Israel are specifically excluded from these visa proposals.

So is this the wrong visa, for the wrong people, at the wrong time? No. Any moves to cut red tape must be welcomed – and it seems to me the whole Latin America thing is a red herring: this is, in truth, focused on tapping growing markets in India, China and East Asia for overseas leisure tourism.

Middle Eastern cooperation, in whatever form, is good. From such initiatives do greater visions take hold. Bring on the common visa.