THE FRENCH CONNECTION
With the number of tourists from Oman doubling in a year, France aims to attract more visitors from the sultanate, the French envoy told Muscat Daily , adding that a proposal to grant ‘visa-free entry’ to Omani nationals is under consideration by EU authorities and a final decision may take a “couple of years”.
H E Roland Dubertrand, the Ambassador of France to Oman, also stressed that despite the deadly ‘Charlie Hebdo’ terror attacks in Paris at the start of this year – which had raised global concerns about France’s tourism industry – his country remains the world’s top tourist destination. “In 2013, the French Embassy in Oman delivered about 4,500 visas. This number was doubled to 9,000 visas in 2014. The actual number of visitors could be even higher as many travellers also use visas issued by other Schengen countries to enter France,” H E Dubertrand said. “Going by the trend, we expect a significant rise in the number of visitors from Oman this year,” he added.
On the other hand, over 50,000 French tourists visited Oman last year, registering a substantial increase over the previous years. “The credit for this must go to Oman’s Ministry of Tourism, which is doing a wonderful job in promoting this fascinating country in France,” said H E Dubertrand.
Visa process eased
While Oman extends the ‘visa on arrival’ facility to French nationals, its demand for a reciprocal gesture hasn’t been granted yet. “We are grateful to the sultanate for being such a hospitable nation. The request for visa-free entry for Omanis in France is a subject for the European Union and is being considered by the concerned authorities. A decision on this might take a couple of years,” he said.
Stressing that tourism, medical tourism, business and education are among the main attractions for visitors from Oman to France, the ambassador said that the French Embassy has eased the visa process in the sultanate. “It takes only 48 hours to issue the visa after submission of the completed application,” he said. However, the mandatory online appointment for the submission of documents could take longer, H E Dubertrand said, advising that those planning a visit should apply “at least two to three weeks in advance to avoid last-minute inconvenience”.
Reassurance on security
The French Ambassador strongly asserted that the deadly ‘Charlie Hebdo’ terror attacks haven’t had much impact on the inflow of tourists to France. In the aftermath of the January 7 massacre – rated as the worst terror attack on France – the French government deployed 10,000 soldiers and 5,000 more police officers to ensure security at all major tourist spots in Paris.
Amid global concerns, tourism officials were dispatched around the world to reassure visitors and travel agents about their safety and security. “The authorities have increased security at all the tourist sites in Paris and have taken all the measures to ensure that visitors are safe in France. There is no indication so far that the tragic event has deterred tourists from visiting France,” he said.
Most visited country
With 83mn tourists last year, France remains the most visited country in the world, asserted H E Dubertrand. “It is interesting to note that the number of visitors to France in 2014 was more than the country’s population of 66mn. The number is growing with every passing year and we hope to have 100mn tourists by 2020.”
The French capital, Paris, in itself is a huge draw among global travellers placing it among the top three most visited cities in the world. Euro Disney (now called Disneyland Paris), nearby, is an extremely popular destination among children, the envoy said.
H E Dubertrand stressed that one of his primary aims is to attract more visitors from Oman. “While almost everyone visits Paris, I would strongly recommend travellers to visit other parts of the country. France is very rich in landscape and geographical diversity, so we want to promote all the destinations,” he said.
“Depending on their interests, they can visit either the Mediterranean beaches and seaside resorts of Côte d’Azur (also known as the French Riviera) in the southeast or the ski resorts in the Alps or Pyrenees mountains,”
H E Dubertrand suggested. “France is also the world’s top skiing destination. In the northwest we have the Normandy region, home to Mont Saint-Michel island and Brittany (also known as Little Britain), while in the southwest there’s Burgundy and Alsace.”
Besides, France has 38 sites recognised in Unesco’s World Heritage List, including rural regions that many enjoy for their beauty, tranquility and green tourism, said the ambassador.
Halal tourism and veil ban
H E Dubertrand pointed out that France, with an estimated figure of over five million, is home to the largest Muslim population in Western Europe. “There are over 2,000 mosques spread all across France. One of the biggest one is the Grande Mosquée de Paris (or the Great Mosque of Paris), which is a popular site for Muslims interested in religious tourism,” he said.
A rise in Muslim visitors to France has also seen the emergence of ‘halal tourism’ in recent years. “A good number of French Muslims, especially the young ones, have taken the initiative of halal tourism to cater to the needs of Muslim visitors.”
H E Dubertrand also attempted to allay concerns regarding the ban on full face veils in France since 2010, which may deter women from the Muslim world from visiting the country. “It would be a mistake to believe that all Islamic veils are banned in France.
Veil, as such is not forbidden, as long as the face is visible. What is forbidden though, and for reasons of security, is face-covering gears including masks, helmets, balaclava, niqabs and burqas,” he clarified.
“France is a secular nation and welcomes tourists from all faiths,” he concluded.