The jam-packed car park was all the confirmation we needed of warnings that we would be waiting hours to cross the UAE-Omani border.
“Shall we take some magazines in,” my friend asks, registering the same dreaded information.
We walk into the Omani visa processing office at Hatta, armed with magazines and headphones plugged into our iPhones, and sigh as at least 1500 people are already crowded into four lanes.
Four lanes. Four of the eight existing booths are open for visa processing on a long weekend. The inefficiency of the Omani border control was immediately evident.
Extra lengthy queues are expected on a long weekend and tourists should be ready to wait longer than usual. Three hours is asking a lot but the experience was made all the more sour by the obvious lack of efficiency among staff.
Oman has stated it wants to increase visitor numbers from 1.5 million in 2014 to 3 million by 2020. Much of that – and I would argue, far more - can come from the UAE, a country of 9 million people, at least half of whom have the means to travel to Oman for short or longer breaks.
Long weekends should be a boon for Oman, a country boasting spectacular coastlines, depth to its usually very welcoming culture, cooler mountains and an all-round sought after break from UAE city life.
But it will never fulfil that potential while its inefficient road border crossing process continues. I, for one, will never again drive to Oman for a short break.
To have only four of eight visa processing desks open on a long weekend is an affront to the country’s tourists. Then, when we finally reached the front of the queue, the visa processing officer was apparently deliberately slow; laboring over our passports, his eyes darting everywhere but at the pages and asking us irrelevant personal questions.
Then three Omani citizens (who were not dressed in border patrol uniforms) entered the room where the visa officers were seated, and they all stood up to greet them, taking a few minutes to chat before eventually returning to their jobs.
It took 7-8 minutes for our visas to be processed once we reached the counter. Given my friend and I both have UAE residency and had both been to Oman several times previously (via air) this seems a particularly protracted period of time.
Crowds of more than 1000 people are not uncommon at Dubai International Airport’s immigration on any given day, yet visitors rarely wait an hour to be welcomed to the country.
There is no reason why the same efficiency should not be applied in Oman. The country could start with an online visa system, at least for some categories of applicant, such as expatriates with residency of another GCC country.
I have previously written about the magic of Oman, a country I do truly believe is a tourist must-see. However, sadly, the Sultanate will not reach its tourism potential until it fast-tracks its immigration processing procedures.