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Travel to the US is back on radar

Middle East travellers are beginning to return to the US for leisure and business trips, according to US airlines and hoteliers.

Almost five years after the 9/11 terrorist attack when travel between the two destinations plummeted, the Saudi Arabia market in particular is eager to cross the Atlantic once again.

“In general we are seeing growth from the Levant, Gulf and North Africa regions because there is pent-up demand,” said Marcel Fuchs, managing director worldwide sales & alliances, Europe, Middle East, Africa & India for United Airlines.

The carrier witnessed 14% growth from these markets for the first quarter of 2006 he said.

“Some of the regional carriers are starting services to the US and that helps stimulate demand. We are working closely with carriers such as Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways and Gulf Air to link their flights to Europe to our flights to the US,” he added.

United Airlines, which has undergone a major restructuring process over the past two-and-a-half years, has shifted 14% of capacity from domestic to international and now operates 26 transatlantic flights daily, 12 from the UK and 14 from the rest of Europe, equating to 6500 seats.

“Much of our premium business is from Saudi Arabia,” said Fuchs.

He explained that further growth from this market was anticipated now that Star Alliance partner, UK carrier BMI was flying to Heathrow from both Riydah and Jeddah.

United’s main hub is US capital Washington DC, one of the most popular US destinations for Middle East leisure and business travellers according to John Harper, vice president international sales offices, The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company L.L.C.

“There is a big interest in travelling back to the US from the Middle East market and business is starting to pick up,” Harper told ATN at last month’s ATM. “We have seen some wonderful increases from this region, particularly from wealthy families travelling to the US in the summer.”

Ritz-Carlton’s US properties witnessed 16% growth between 2005 and 2006, compared to 15% from 2004 to 2005 and zero increases for the 2003-2004 period.

“Our predictions are that we’ll see at least 10% growth this summer,” said Harper.

More than 80% of GCC business hails from Saudi Arabia followed by Kuwait, Qatar and to a lesser extent, the UAE, he added.

Despite the upturn in travel to the US, the lengthy visa application process for Middle East travellers remains a barrier to entry according to both United and Ritz-Carlton.

However, recently introduced measures such as the Electronic Visa Application Form (EVAF) will speed up the process said Hilary Olsin-Windecker, public affairs officer, US Embassy Abu Dhabi.

“The procedures have been made streamlined, the time that you wait is shorter, and both the department of state and the department of homeland security have been told to be more customer friendly,” she said.

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