There are 4 ways to obtain a tourist visa in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), each is through "sponsorship". This is for the few countries that don't have visa-on-arrival (VOA) privileges in the desert state. The Philippines is one of such unfortunate countries. All Filipinos visiting Dubai, Abu Dhabi or the 5 other emirate states should secure a tourist visa before their visit.
1) From an airline, like Emirates (not Cebu Pacific or Philippine Airlines);
2) From a UAE hotel (3- or 4-stars and above) who offers such service (very few does, from experience);
3) From a relative, friend or acquaintance legally working in the UAE, who will then apply a visa for you through a local travel agent in the emirates; and
4) From a travel agency (based in the UAE).
Options 2 and 3 require you to book your hotel stay with them. This usually includes a refundable, but hefty security deposit (about P75,000 blocked from your credit card), aside from the processing fee for your tourist visa (US$100). I emailed 2 travel agencies in Dubai (one is South Travels) highly recommended by some Philippine travel blogs but got no response.
Thus far, the easiest option is via Emirates' online visa-processing site. For this, you are required to book a return flight (and fly) with them, then apply for a tourist visa through their website. You will get the result (approval or denial) of your application within 4 days - or 7 to 10 days if there are deficiencies. You can always apply earlier than this.
You can also apply for your visa through a travel agency in the Philippines, but I find the process more stressful and expensive. You may be called for an interview at the embassy too. This is not for me, as I do not have the time or patience for this.
BOOKING ON APRIL FOOLS
This was what brought me to M Hotel Downtown by Millennium. I wrote a dozen 3- and 4-star hotels, inquiring if they offer visa processing service. I reckon, I might as well be sponsored by the place where I will be staying. It all made sense then. Of the 12 hotels I emailed, I got 5 replies.
Only M Hotel said "yes", and swiftly so. In fact, I was sent the visa application form and a list of the requirements I needed to submit ASAP. "Just give us about 5-10 working days to process it," wrote Ms. Nelsie Macapayag, the hotel's reservations officer. Two days later, after mulling it over, I booked a room for 7 days. On a Friday, I got a good deal, that included breakfast and dinner. But it was non-refundable. You cannot change dates or cancel it. Once booked, it is money spent! Many good deals are the same. This was 2 months (and 4 days) before my flight, on an unremarkable April 1st! If it was indeed Fool's Day, this was totally lost in me.
From then, I got lost with work. There were concerns I needed to attend to. Besides, it was hospital accreditation season. I was up to here with work. This was one of the reasons I shunned going through travel agencies. I did not have the time.
About 2 weeks prior to my departure, I emailed my application and sent my requirements to Ms. Macapayag. I got the shock of my life when she told me that "there was no such booking" in their hotel. I sent the hotel a copy of my Agoda voucher. I wrote Agoda, who informed me otherwise! My booking was indeed confirmed. I wrote Ms. Macapayag again who ordered me to tell Agoda people to call her! Why am I acting as the middle-man between my booking agent and the hotel? I am the paying customer here, these dimwits seem to have forgotten! Wasn't it the booking agency's responsibility to make sure that I have a room? I have paid for this. I shouldn't be doing the leg work for anything else.
DILEMMA - WHAT TO DO?
If your booking agent (in this case, Agoda) tells you that your booking is confirmed, but the hotel representative informs you that there is no record of this, what do you do? Throw away money spent? It was time that Agoda should intervene. In this scenario, telling me 100x that my booking has been confirmed does not change the fact that the hotel does not acknowledge such confirmation.
I called Agoda 3 times, and chatted with a couple. Two of their customer representatives were dismissive, but one of them offered to call M Hotel. He spoke with somebody from the front desk who informed him that my name appears in the reservation. It was there! What was Ms. Macapayag saying exactly?
I emailed Ms. Macapayag about this: Why can the frontdesk man find my reservation easily (I was on chat and waited while Agoda spoke to the frontdesk officer) while she cannot? Macapayag then wrote to me saying that M Hotel does NOT accept Agoda bookings, "because it was done by a local travel agency, not Agoda". Why does the hotel appear in Agoda's website, in the first place? Macapayag's reply baffled me because Booking Platforms usually use local travel agents to book hotels. This is how it goes worldwide.
I contacted Agoda again; spoke with one named Aya. I told her she needed to speak to Ms. Macapayag this time, and not the front desk. Ms. Macapayag seemed to wield power that no existing reservation gets the green light without her nod. That was my impression. Aya from Agoda balked! "It is not our policy to call hotels!" What? The other customer representatives gave the hotel a call, why won't she? She must have been so special, sitting on her call center pedestal that she couldn't be bothered to fix a problem that Agoda needed to fix. Yet Aya, the Queen, won't! "I told you your booking is confirmed. What more do you want me to do?" Aya quipped. The nerve. After all that explanation, and she was so dense to understand the intricacies of the situation! The hotel reservations officer wanted Agoda to speak with her - but it is beyond her to do so! Did I tell this girl she was inept and lazy? You bet I did.
SHOW UP, WILL BE TURNED AWAY
I finally gave Dubai a long distance call, forget that it is expensive to do so. I was able to finally speak with Ms. Macapayag who categorically told me: "If you show up here, we will turn you away." That was bright as the summer's day! Yet I cannot rebook, or cancel or be refunded for reservations. The gist: you get my money and I get turned away? How convenient, right? I mean, if you return my money first, I would gladly stay away from M Hotel like you were the plague. But not until I get my $630 back first.
I suggested to Agoda to secure me a different hotel because they have my money already; they refused. Yet they kept mouthing that such reservation with M Hotel was good despite my getting warned that I will be turned away. I insisted I needed more assurance. I wanted the hotel (not Agoda) to tell me that there is no problem with my booking. I deserved this, at the very least! Agoda gave the hotel a call again. Mr. Mima from the frontdesk assured that my reservation will indeed be honored. I won't be turned away. That was what I needed! End of story!
Ms. Macapayag emailed again a few days prior to my arrival advising me to "cancel your reservations altogether to avoid further inconvenience". I thought Ms. Macapayag seemed completely clueless with what was going on at the front desk. And since I cannot cancel my booking or get my money back - money that can feed a village for a couple of weeks or more - then I took a risk! I stopped replying to Ms. Macapayag. I also decided to book a one-night $50 stay at Donatello Hotel just in case!
On June 4th, I arrived in Dubai, employed the Marhaba service that sped up my immigration transit out of the airport. The process was a brisk 15-minute breeze through DXB Terminal 3. No queues, no questions at the immigration, no manual checking of baggage. Took 3 minutes to exchange dollars to dirham. (Tip! - Avoid changing huge sum at the airport. Better rates at the city.) This would be my fastest airport transit in all my years of travel, 50 countries later.
FAULTLESS, FAST, PROFESSIONAL
My airport pickup was a huge Lexus car, with a chatty driver, who complimented my choice of area: "the city's most expensive", he said. I was anxious during check-in for obvious reasons. At least Donatello Hotel waited for me, just in case. But the process was faultless, fast and professional. Fifteen minutes from arrival, I was safely inside room 1314.
WHAT ABOUT THE VISA?
After having a mind-numbing, time-consuming exchange with Agoda and M Hotel, I decided to get my UAE Visa from Emirates airlines. I applied and submitted the minimum documents required online. Four days later, I got the result! It was photo finish, thanks to the internal squabble I had to go through. If it were not for the pre-booked activities, not the least of which was my hotel expenditure with M Hotel, I would have scrapped the whole Dubai thing altogether. I did not want to grate my teeth dealing with a UAE hotel again - because I do not have to! Dubai is a charm, but I wouldn't die and decompose if I didn't set foot in this alluring city. I reckon there are 180 economies in the world. I still have 130 countries to choose from. Fact!
TYPES OF UAE VISA
1. Visit Visa - This is for the traveler who has an immediate family who resides and works in the UAE (this has "earnings" stipulations). The family member will apply the visa for him.
2. Tourist Visa - This is for tourists who want a 30-day visa, mostly single entry, and can apply for sponsorhip through an airline, a hotel or a travel agency in the UAE. A hotel will ask for a refundable PhP75,000 as security deposit which will be returned two weeks after your onward travel out of Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Plus the visa processing fee.
3. Transit Visa - This is if you're visiting the UAE between 8 hours (layovers) and 4 days (and not beyond). This has to be used within 14 days from the date of issue.
There used to be a 90-day visa, convenient for those looking for employment opportunities, but this had been scrapped. There are new visa regulations just out recently so the aforementioned may have been modified already.
For my visa, I was given 2 months.
The point of this post is to emphasize the struggle I had to go through just to get the room that I paid for. Here's the hearsay. Dubai hotels allegedly have a problem with Agoda bookings because the latter supposedly advertise spuriously, but pay a lot less. That is what I heard. As a result, hotels allegedly refuse to admit Agoda customers. Supposedly, there had been tourists turned away, some left crying because they were driven away during unholy hours of the night. Isn't that awful? Isn't the hotel industry operating on the concept of good will and hospitality? Now, they are turning away legitimate tourists who have paid for their accommodation. You've heard of a world leader who called God stupid, right? The world is going nuts!
DUBAI TOURISM AUTHORITY SHOULD INTERVENE
Since all these wranglings between UAE hotels and Agoda are creating havoc on paying guests and innocent travelers, the tourism authority of Dubai should institute policies to fix this wrinkle; sanction these erring hotels and booking agents.
If Dubai positions itself as a world-class tourist destination, like its visionary Sultan has thought of it, they should institute measures and draft policies that protect legitimate tourists; and regulate unscrupulous practices in the hotel and hospitality industry the way Japan has. From my end, the solution is simple.
The UAE is a signatory member of the United Nations. It should let its tourism industry be aware of the Global Code of Ethics of Tourism. Article 1, section 3 underlines that "host communities and local professionals should acquaint themselves with, and respect the tourists who visit them." Let's not even go that far. There's Consumer Rights. On the whole, Ms. Macapayag just wasted my time, and is probably reflective of what she knows - or does not know - about the aforementioned.
REMOVE REMOVE REMOVE
Agoda should REMOVE all hotels from their website who give their customers a hard time. Or those who do no honor their bookings! This is the logical thing to do. Yet as I write this, M Hotel Downtown by Millennium, as fancy as it sounds, still graciously appears in Agoda's website - again! With "82% Off " today, but at what cost?! Scary, if you ask me! You don't want to book and pay - then get told that you will be turned away with your Agoda voucher!
M Hotel on the other hand should REMOVE their hotel in the Agoda website if they will just turn away paying guests. Remember, the operative word here is "paying"! These are not beggars who impose their presence on hotels who don't want them! Moreover, if a visa processing service is inconvenient for the hotel, then they should NOT falsely claim otherwise! I booked my stay because M Hotel said they can and would! Instead, there's this whole worm of a problematic hotel booking, which is silly and just ridiculous! Brought undue worries when there should be none.
Booking lang, ang daming problemang pinapalabas when it should be the easiest thing to do in planning a travel. Imagine that!
TO FUTURE TOURISTS
If you're considering a stay at M Hotel, book direct! Avoid getting entangled in the squabble of a booking platform and a hotel, that dismisses the plight of the tourist altogether. Tourists reserve rooms for a relaxing holiday, not to get stressed out!
The easiest way to getting a visa is through the Emirates website. Your Dubai Visa via Emirates website is faster and cheaper at US$96.59, plus a refundable $200 blocked from your credit card, and reimbursed a week after you've taken your onward flight out of Dubai. Believe me, your Emirates return flights will pay out adequately in terms of convenience (plane seats, immigration, Terminal 3 security, etc.) Besides, DXB's Terminal 3 has to be experienced.
Tourist Visa Update as of July 16, 2018:
Khaleej Times reports that tourists travelling to the UAE during the summer won't need to pay visa fees for dependents aged 18 years and below. This exemption is applicable between July 15 and September 15 every year.
14-day express tourist visa costs 497 dirham (P7,235) per head
30-day multi-entry tourist visa costs 917 (P13,350) dirham
This rates are applicable if you apply directly at the embassy. If you apply through Emirates, the rates are a lot cheaper at less than US$100 per person as long as you have return Emirates tickets.
There is a 90-day multiple entry visa worth 945 dirham but I think this is not available for Filipino tourists. Please check the UAE Embassy website for this.
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